First Spring Back to Vail concert Friday
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, who play in Vail Friday, are a group of musicians concerned with much more than music. Bandleader Reuben Koroma formed the All Stars in Guinean refugee camps during the Sierra Leone Civil War, which lasted from 1991 to 2002 and drove more than a third of the country’s population into refugee camps in neighboring countries. Koroma, who was a professional musician in Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown, before fleeing in 1997, said he began singing songs in the camps with his wife, Grace, as a way to cope with the pain and disorientation they were feeling at the time.”The whole idea is that we were trying to at least trick ourselves, because at that time, we were so confused and frustrated about what happened,” Koroma said. “Being separated from your country and from your loved ones and being separated from all your belongings – it’s rather very confusing. So, we just choose playing music so that we can forget the troubles.”
The Koromas got a fellow Freetown musician involved in the music-making, a guitarist by the name of Francis John Langba (nicknamed “Franco”), who escaped to Guinea with an acoustic guitar. Armed with the single guitar and some rudimentary percussion, the musicians sang and played to keep themselves sane, though they soon noticed that others were benefiting from the music as well.”We were doing this to comfort ourselves, but when we started doing it, we saw that many people around us really found pleasure from being around us when we played music,” Koroma said. “When we first came to the camp … everybody was very sad. Very, very sad. When we started doing this, we saw that many people who were sad sometimes found pleasure in sitting around us and sometimes could easily smile – some could jump and dance. It’s like what we were doing was a real therapy.”Other musicians, including bassist Idriss Bangura, known as “Mallam,” joined up, and the All Stars started playing special events and ceremonies around the camps. Eventually a relief agency gave the group some well-used instruments and equipment, and the group began churning out songs of protest and peace, many of which were eventually included on its debut album, “Living Like A Refugee,” as well as on the eponymous, critically-acclaimed documentary film about the band. The group’s heartfelt, ethnic reggae music has also been well-received by international critics, but Koroma said the All Stars are trying to do more than just write good music.”What we hope to accomplish, actually, is just to spread the good message that going to war can never solve our problems,” Koroma said. “People should learn to put their heads together and solve problems rather than going to war. … We try to spread positive messages, peaceful messages – you know, talk about love. Love, we think, is the only answer.”
The All Stars are also active fundraisers for causes helping their homeland, and to that end, the band has partnered with the International Rescue Committee, which spearheaded education and health campaigns in the refugee camps the All Stars formed in. The group continues to do humanitarian work in Sierra Leone today. Concertgoers on the current tour will be encouraged to donate money to the IRC via text message, and the band is donating part of its proceeds from its newest album, “Rise & Shine,” to the organization. Koroma said that though conditions in Sierra Leone have improved greatly since the war, most of the country’s residents are still struggling with poverty, unemployment and a lack of essential amenities.”The greatest thing in Sierra Leone is that Sierra Leone is peaceful right now. But we still have abject poverty, serious poverty, because of the war,” Koroma said. “Most of the towns in the provinces, we don’t have good hospitals. … Prices are high and this is really, really disturbing people, you know, when prices are just coming up every day and night and most of the youth are not employed – where can they get money? (There is) a lot of suffering. Sierra Leone has a lot to be done.”As a result of the new problems in Sierra Leone, the Refugee All Stars have shifted their lyrical focus somewhat on the new album. However, Koroma said the band is still focusing on familiar themes such as peace and unity, which he said are important now not only in his home, but all over the world.”Now that the war is over, our writing is focused in trying to get love within ourselves and then put our efforts together to develop our country,” Koroma said. “Another thing is to spread positive messages even elsewhere in the world, because Sierra Leone is not the only country that has been torn by war. … We are a band that talks about other issues that affect many people, not only our country. We talk about peace.”Aaron Butzen is a freelance writer based in Denver. See more of his work at http://www.butzenmedia.com.