Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars (Photo credit: Josh Sanseri)
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars formed under the direst of circumstances. During the 11-year Civil War in Sierra Leone, many Sierra Leoneans fled to refugee camps in the neighbouring Guinea. It was in those refugee camps that the indomitable spirit of Reuben Koroma rose to the challenge to create something beautiful out of the very ugly nature of war and displacement.
A 2005 documentary titled Living Like a Refugee (also the name of their debut album) tells their story of triumph over what many may think were insurmountable odds.
Next stop: global fame, critically-acclaimed albums, Oprah and more. We jumped at the chance to talk music with Mr. Koroma between shows on the band's current world tour.
TIA: You have a very compelling back story. For those that may not know this story, could you tell us about it?
Reuben: Back in the late 90s, when the war forced us out of our country (Sierra Leone), we found ourselves in refugee camps. The refugee camp situation is not conducive to agreement between people. Everybody in the camp was highly frustrated, including me. I was really depressed being separated from my country, not following the events and all the happenings back home. I just thought instead of thinking of all the bad things happening to me, I had to do something that would keep me from thinking about those things, and I found that in music. I started playing music in the camp with my wife, and I started looking out for other musicians in the camp. I was lucky enough to find Francis John Langba, who was the first guitarist I got. I incorporated him into the initial band, and we started playing music in the camp. All the fellow refugees loved the music, and that’s how we came to meet.
TIA: Prior to the civil war, did you have a background in music?
Reuben: Yes. I was a full-time musician before the war separated me and the other guys I was playing with. I was playing in a band called Empowers, but when the war came, I was separated from the other members, and came to the camp with my wife.
TIA: What did you grow up listening to?
Reuben: When I was growing up, I liked listening to Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and all those reggae artists. Also, I listened to Dr. Nico from Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), and other great Congolese musicians like Papa Wemba and Rochereau. I listened to many Congolese artists. I also listened to Teddy Pendergrass from the US, and Kool & the Gang. I listened to music all the time when I was growing up. I was so crazy about it.
TIA: Yes, I can tell. You just went from Rochereau to Teddy Pendergrass!
TIA: Your music is often described in the press as a mix of reggae, highlife, and soukous. I don’t think that’s completely accurate. In your own words, how would you describe your music?
Reuben: The thing is that reggae music comes from Jamaica. The music we play to the understanding of the world is similar to reggae, but we call it baskeda back home. We have a kind of tradition in Sierra Leone which [the music] has one beat, just like the reggae in Jamaica, but we call it baskeda. That’s one element of all the early music we played. Another African music we play is gumbe. Gumbe is a very popular traditional music we play in Sierra Leone with hand drums, cowbells and shakers. Usually, you have the lead vocalist singing, and there will be 20 to 30 people responding. That’s the music we modified into our band with drum kits and other stuff (instruments). So the main music we play is gumbe and baskeda.
TIA: "Living Like a Refugee" was a big hit, and it was well received all over the world. Did you expect the worldwide critical acclaim and warm reception?
Reuben: No! I never had such thoughts. When I was in the refugee camp, we played music to appease people. The refugees were all having grievances with the supply and distribution of food, not to mention the deplorable conditions that we found ourselves living in. I was just trying to be articulate, to air out some of their feelings in the songs, just to satisfy them. You know, when someone has grievances, it’s not good if they don’t have the chance to air them. When someone has the chance to air their grievances, it goes a long way towards reforming the life of that person. I was just doing it to heal their trauma. I was not expecting anything more than that to come out of it.
TIA: After the documentary "Living Like a Refugee", international touring and a newfound international audience, how did things change for the band? What was the perception of people back home in Freetown?
Reuben: Actually, things changed for the better. In the cities in Sierra Leone, in Freetown, people treated us as celebrities. People honour us; they always say thanks for spreading the good message and for making our country proud. The people really love us. The only thing is that since we started, we haven’t been able to go into some of the provinces and many towns. So we often hear “Refugee All Stars are just playing for the international world and in the city (Freetown).” We don’t go to the provinces where people really want to see us, but it’s not because we don’t want to. We have very little time to go there.
TIA: You opened for Aerosmith at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. How did that come about, and what was the experience like?
Reuben: It was really an honour for me to be with those guys. When I was a kid, I had been hearing about them and listening to their songs. I never thought that one day I would see them face to face. When they invited us to open up for them, it was great. I was very excited. They [Aerosmith] are very good people. They really opened their hearts to us, they encouraged us, and they treated us just as equals. It was really a very good experience meeting with and opening for them because they really supported us.
TIA: How was your experience on the Oprah Winfrey show?
Reuben: That one too was fine, but Oprah was very busy, unlike Aerosmith who invited us to their houses, and then into their studio. For Oprah, it was fine, but she was always busy. It was like she was too high for us to have a better chat with her. I really did not feel like I was meeting somebody who was open and embraced us the way Aerosmith embraced us. She had very little time to talk to us. Nevertheless, it was good because it was a good way to promote us and our message, but I personally didn’t feel very comfortable.
TIA: With the release of your sophomore album "Rise & Shine", the topics went beyond the civil war in Sierra Leone. There was a much more global approach, highlighting issues like poverty, wealth disparity and disarmament, to name a few. Was that a conscious decision?
Reuben: Refugee All Stars was born after a brutal war, and after we had that experience we always hated wars. We don’t like wars because after what we saw and what we’ve been through, we believe that we have to be very honest with the message that going to war is not good. War is a global problem. We also touched on global warming. It’s a crisis, and it’s something that concerns everybody. We are all citizens of the world. It’s something worth thinking about, and if we can raise awareness to everyone in the world, then maybe we can do something to remedy the problem. We always talk about things affecting many people.
TIA: Your latest release is "Radio Salone". How does it differ from "Living Like a Refugee" and "Rise & Shine"? What should listeners expect?
Reuben: The difference is that Radio Salone is strongly African. We have many African songs, and many traditional interludes that represent the Sierra Leonean culture. We called the album Radio Salone, because "Salone" in creole means Sierra Leone. That’s how we call it in our common language – Salone! Also, the radio has been a very powerful source of our inspiration. In fact, most of the inspiration we got was through listening to the radio. By incorporating radio into the title, we are acknowledging the importance of the radio.
TIA: Your music is obviously very socially conscious. What current African musicians do you think embody that spirit?
Reuben: Many come to mind, but the first is Fela, but he’s dead now. Fela of Nigeria was a great one. We had Lucky Dube from South Africa who was great, but he too has passed away. We have Alpha Blondy from Ivory Coast. Also, there is Youssou N'Dour. These are just some. We have many Africans who are really socially conscious.
TIA: Outside of African musicians, what do you listen to?
Reuben: I listen to a lot of stuff, I like hip hop. I listen to Ice Cube. I also listen to Buju Banton. I listen to Michael Jackson because I like funk. I know it’s called pop, but I don’t know; it’s funk. I also listen to musicians from Britain, as well as stuff like St. Paul. I listen to music passionately.
TIA: We have something in common; I’m a big Ice Cube fan myself. I grew up listening to him, much to the chagrin of my parents I’m sure.
Reuben: (laughs) – That’s good, Ice Cube is the man!
TIA: Post civil war, what do you think of Sierra Leone today, and the future of the country? Where is it heading?
Reuben: For the moment, I think Sierra Leone is doing well. The present government is trying to repair and construct most of the roads. I was there for 8 months before I came one tour. Most of the roads in the capital city were really constructed. We were used to having 2 lanes on the roads, but now we have 4 lanes on most of the roads. Then there is electricity. Freetown at one point used to be the darkest city, probably in the world, but it has been lit. Now we have electricity, although not 100%. I’d say it’s at least 75%. A lot of things have been happening. The airport used to be like a farmhouse, but now it has been developed. Development has been going on rapidly. I believe that Sierra Leone will really develop as a strong nation if it continues at this rate.
TIA: Reuben, thank you very much for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to speak with This is Africa. We really appreciate it.
Reuben: Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure.
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars are currently on the Radio Salone World Tour, and will perform at the Highline Ballroom in New York on the 29th of June.