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SIERRA LEONE'S
REFUGEE ALL STARS


Photo by Jane Richey

All the members of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars lived in or near Sierra Leone's capital city before fleeing Freetown during the country's decade-long civil war. Throughout most of the 1990s, Freetown remained relatively sheltered from the rebel war that had turned much of the West African nation into a bloody battlefield. Near the turn of the 21st century, however, rebels attacked the city and forced a panicked mass exodus to neighboring countries. Among the thousands who fled were musicians and future bandmates Reuben M. Koroma and Franco (Francis Langba) who connected in Kalia Refugee Camp in Guinea. When Reuben and his wife Grace located Franco they began making music for their fellow refugees, providing a welcome distraction to life in the camps. Their efforts, however, were to be short lived. Safety in the Kalia camp disintegrated when it came under attack from the Guinean army and citizenry who believed the camps were being used as staging grounds for rebel attacks against Guinea. With refugee camps now war zones, the initial band members were evacuated from the area and moved to Sembakounya Refugee Camp. Set deep in the remote Guinean countryside, it was here that, thanks to a Canadian refugee aid organization, the developing band was able to acquire the rusted-out sound system and beat up electric guitars that helped officially launch the group.

At Sembakounya Camp, American documentary filmmakers Banker White and Zach Niles along with Canadian singer-songwriter Chris Velan encountered Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, which by that point also included Black Nature, a teenaged orphan with a gift for rap, as well as Arahim (Abdul Rahim Kamara) and Mohammed Bangura, both of whom had suffered amputation at the hands of the rebels. The first-time filmmakers followed the band for three years as they moved from camp to camp and eventually returned home to face their war-torn country and reunite with family, friends and former bandmates, many of whom they believed may not have survived the violence. It was during this trip that the current line-up of the band was cemented and their lifelong dream of recording in a studio was realized.

Now Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars tour the world spreading their message of peace and love in a "can't help but dance" show that fans from all musical backgrounds can enjoy. With a spirited and infectious fusion of traditional West African music, roots reggae and rhythmic traditional folk, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars craft music that transforms and uplifts. The collection of songs on their debut album Living Like A Refugee, decry the horrors of war and describe the plight of refugee life. They have lived through unimaginable tragedy and yet Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars have become an inspiration and a symbol of the healing power of music.

Championed by The New York Times, critic Stephen Holden wrote, “As harrowing as these personal tales may be, the music buoying them is uplifting. The cliché bears repeating: music heals and creates community.” Be it via the warm, percussion-steered delights of “Akera Ka Ambonshor”, the spirited skiffle of “Soda Soap” or “Refugee Rolling,” where uprooted souls manage to rise above uncertainty with admirable finesse, Living Like A Refugee is proof that that there is always hope to be found.

Living Like A Refugee, produced by Chris Velan, was recorded throughout the production of the Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars film, between August 2002 and October 2005. Each song is an original composition written during their years in exile and taken as a whole the album serves as a musical document of the band's incredible journey. Featuring field recordings from the refugee camps in Guinea as well as studio efforts at Sam Jones' Island Studios in Freetown, these 17 tracks tell the story of life in the camps ("Living Like A Refugee"). Enduring the horrors of war ("Kele Mani," "Weapon Conflict"), facing hunger ("Bull To The Weak"), remembering lost family members ("Ya N'Digba" was written for bandleader Reuben's mother) and yet still managing to give thanks ("Compliments For The Peace"), Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars are a testament to the indomitable human spirit and the transcendent power of music.

Backed by the likes of Keith Richards, Sir Paul McCartney, Ice Cube, Angelina Jolie and executive producers Steve Bing and Shelley Lazar - the resulting documentary film, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, has won thirteen major awards as of this writing, including the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the AFI Film Festival 2005, the Audience Favorite Award at the Miami Film Festival 2006, the Filmmaker's Award For Social Change and the Emerging Pictures Audience Award (bestowed on the winner of voting by audiences in eleven cities) at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2006, Best of The Fest at the Human Rights Watch Film Fest and the Impact of Music Award at the Nashville Film Fest. Sustaining hope in a landscape dominated by rage and loss is at the core of this heartbreaking yet life-affirming story.

And while the film has been busy conquering the hearts of festival goers (including Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, who told Billboard "I was just so overwhelmed by the movie and the message of hope they're carrying. Their music is so buoyant and joyful.") it is the music of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars that is now winning over legions of new fans. Lauded for their infectious sound and engaging performance, the All Stars are, as Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times says, "establishing an identity based as much on skill, imagination and charisma as on their undeniably touching story."

To date the band has been featured on CNN and CNN International, PBS and CBS Sunday Morning, as well as having performed live on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Their sound is also finding new avenues of exposure including a song in the film Blood Diamond and two upcoming humanitarian relief compilations, which they recorded in the studio with Joe Perry and Steven Tyler. For a group that started in a remote Guinean refugee camp and only started touring outside of West Africa less than a year ago, they have come a long way. In the past year the band has appeared at some of the most prestigious music festivals worldwide including Bonnaroo, The Montreal Jazz Fest, The Ottawa Jazz Festival, The Folk and Roots Festival in Chicago, The Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, as well as headlining at Central Park Summerstage. In November, 2006 the band opened for Aerosmith at the Mohegan Sun Arena and most recently performed for an international audience at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

While each of the stories in these songs is told from the band's personal experience, it is the special gift of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars that the messages they deliver are truly universal. Born in the midst of a violent, decade-long civil war, through music they have found a place of refuge, a sense of purpose and a source of power. The band has seen the worst that this world can offer - yet, through their unflinching spirit and joyful music, they celebrate the best in all of us.

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