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‘Living Like a Refugee’

Ted Alvarez

When Reuben Koroma first landed in a Guinean refugee camp after fleeing Sierra Leone’s interminable civil war, he found himself in dire straits. Food shortages, unsanitary conditions and angry, displaced Sierra Leonians helped keep the camp mired in chaos. So he did the only thing he could do: He formed a band. “I don’t care where I am, I just need to play music; I have no other choice,” Koroma said in between live sets. “Whatever the situation, I have to play music – it’s my destiny.”The singer/songwriter/percussionist became the de facto leader of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, an ad-hoc group of musicians who toured Sembakounya Refugee Camp in Guinea, performing for fellow displaced refugees. With hopelessly battered instruments and a warm, jaunty West-African reggae vibe, they gave a voice to over 30,000 Sierra Leonians who’d been force to flee the horrific war that ravaged their homeland. A documentary crew led by San Franciscans Zach Niles and Banker White went to Sierra Leone to document music in refugee camps, but soon they were swept up by the Refugee All Stars’ heartfelt songs of hope in the face of injustice. The ensuing documentary film, “The Refugee All Stars,” captivated audiences at humanitarian film festivals across the globe, and now the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars are embarking on their second U.S. tour in support of their debut album, “Living Like A Refugee.””In the U.S., I think people really enjoy music, but it’s like playing for people who already have happiness, where there is not too much poverty or things to fear,” Koroma said. “To make them happy is not a big deal – just strum the guitar and play drums and give them a sweet voice. That is all they need.” By contrast, Koroma takes extra pride in being able to connect with a much tougher crowd: hungry, sad refugees who’d experienced decades of crushing loss.”When we were playing for the refugee camp, most of them have problems – physical and psychological problems – or too much of poverty to let them really move them,” Koroma said. “It’s a bit difficult. But we succeeded to move them!”By connecting with their fellow refugees, Koroma and his band found themselves at the center of the camp’s culture, and soon they became viewed as respected community leaders. “Many, many, many people have told me even in the refugee camp, they say, ‘look my friend, the music that you play has really helped me – it makes me feel normal,'” Koroma said. “They needed something to help them forget about their worries. The music is really a treatment, a therapy for people who have suffered.”The All Stars perhaps made their greatest connection through the song “Living Like a Refugee,” which bemoans the drudgery of refugee life amidst a folksy, optimistic reggae backdrop. “When I went to the refugee camp, people were really saying their grievances in the corner,” Koroma said. “I was listening to complaints about no food or sleeping in a toppling house. Thousands have suffered this same thing, so it’s like I’m speaking for them.”Koroma said that the most desperate situations occurred when food distributors from aid groups accidentally ommitted names from their lists; when that happened, refugees could go hungry for months at a time with no means to sustain themselves. “We all rely on the supply; if you’re name is not on the list, you are going to starve,” Koroma said. “One time my name was omitted for nearly three months. I had to suffer for my food too, and because of that I got the inspiration to say, ‘oh, man, I gotta write a song.’ If I kept that in my mind (without writing a song), it would’ve led me to a worse thing. It’s better to purge out my mind.” The impact of Koroma’s song extended far beyond the camp: When U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan visited the camp, residents insisted he listen to a performance of “Living Like A Refugee.” “When Kofi Annan visited our camp, there were 30,000 people saying, ‘you should play this song for Kofi Annan so he can understand what we’re going through,'” Koroma said. “His wife was really responding and crying, so you know she got it – which means he probably understood, too.”Annan subsequently asked the band to tour Sierra Leone once the war was over to help assess conditions. While the situation is still dire, Koroma is hopeful about Sierra Leone’s future. “There is still no jobs, no working – people are trying to get what to eat,” Koroma said. “But we (Sierra Leonians) like dancing in the streets, and celebrating and music so much. We will heal with music and love.” Koroma adds in the liner notes to the All Stars’ album: “Although things are difficult, we still stand up and say it with courage that we can make everything work again, and get all that we have lost.”========== Righteous reggaeWhat: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars chronicle musical triumph over war with West African roots-reggae.Where: Club 8150.When: Saturday Nov. 25.Cost: $16 advance, $18 day of show.Bonus: Free screenings of the film “The Refugee All Stars” at the Crossroads theater on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 p.m.========== Arts & Entertainment Writer Ted Alvarez can be reached at 748-2939 talvarez@vaildaily.com.Vail Daily, Vail Colorado CO


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