june 2012

refugee allstars

The Wan Fambul/One Family artist roster:

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars

The band is a tangible example of the redeeming power of music and the ability of the human spirit to persevere through unimaginable hardship and emerge with optimism intact.

As they languished in a squalid refugee camp in Guinea during the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone of the 1990s, the members of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, could not have imagined what the future would hold for them. In just five whirlwind years, the group has been the subject of an acclaimed documentary film, toured the world to support a critically revered album, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, had their music featured in a major Leonardo DiCaprio film, and shared the stage and studio with Aerosmith, Keith Richards and other international stars. SLRAS have risen like a phoenix out of the ashes of war and have captivated fans across the globe with their uplifting songs and pure energy live shows. The band is a tangible example of the redeeming power of music and the ability of the human spirit to persevere through unimaginable hardship and emerge with optimism intact.

‘Mother in Law,’ from Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars’ third album, Radio Salone, released this past April

In the mid 1990s, bandleader Reuben Koroma and his wife Grace found themselves in the Kalia refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone, and joined up with Francis John Langba (aka Franco), another musician in the camp, to entertain their fellow refugees. Even the refugee camps were not safe havens, however, as they were attacked by the Guinean military and civilian militias who believed the camps were being used as staging ground for cross border attacks by the Sierra Leonean rebels. Eventually, Reuben, Grace and Franco ended up in the more stable Sembakounya Refugee Camp, and there they put the call out for musicians to audition to form a band. After a Canadian relief agency donated two beat up electric guitars, a single microphone and a meager sound system, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars were born. The next three years saw the fledgling band being relocated from camp to camp, bringing much needed joy to fellow refugees with their heartfelt performances. (The award winning eponymous documentary film chronicles this period.)

'We needed a revolution. Not a negative revolution; we needed a positive revolution': a trailer for the documentary film Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars. The film tells the remarkable story of a group of musicians who form a band while living in a West African refugee camp. They were forced from their homes by a brutal civil war that took the lives of many of their loved ones and left them with physical and emotional scars that may never heal. But it could never take away their music. Through music they find a place of refuge, a sense of purpose and a source of power. This film follows the band over the course of three years as they make the difficult decision to return to their war-torn country and realize their dream of recording an album of their original music. The story of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars celebrates the best of the human spirit--the incredible ability of individuals to sustain hope and find forgiveness even in a climate of rage and loss.

The war in Sierra Leone came to an end in 2001, and over time the All Stars returned to Freetown, where they met other returning musicians who eventually joined the band's rotating membership. It was there in the tin-roofed shacks of Freetown's ghettos that SLRAS recorded tracks that ended up, along with unplugged recordings made in the refugee camps, being the basis for their debut album, Living Like a Refugee, which was released on Anti-Records in 2006.

Despite their success, back home in Sierra Leone it was becoming clear that even though the war was over, there were still difficult challenges to overcome the world's third poorest country--this has only strengthened the resolve SLRAS to do what they can to turn their country around. Their weapon in this struggle is music, and their message, while offering critique and condemnation of wrongdoing, remains positive and hopeful. Optimism in the face of obstacles, and the eternal hope for a better future motivates their lives and music.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars started playing music together in West African refugee camps while their homeland was being wracked by years of bloody warfare. Since then, audiences around the world have embraced the band and their utterly extraordinary story. This video is a preview of the group's acclaimed 2010 album Rise & Shine, recorded in part in New Orleans with producer Steve Berlin.

"It's been a long struggle out of the war, out of miserable conditions," notes Koroma, "So now we are trying to develop ourselves as a band and be based in our country. We are really moving towards finding ways of elevating ourselves somehow. But we do not just think about ourselves alone, we try to bring out sensitive issues that are affecting the world. It is all of our responsibility that the masses are suffering. We bring our positive messages into the world so we can expect a positive change in the world. And, most importantly, bring about peace."

all starsTheir sophomore album Rise & Shine displays how much SLRAS have grown since their early days jamming around campfires in isolated refugee camps. The title of the album reflects the band's desire to remain positive in the face of struggle, always greeting a new day with a spirit of excitement over what the future holds. Their third album, Radio Salone, was released this past April and is available at www.amazon.com.

To learn more about SLRAS, visit their webpage.

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Bio compiled by Marshall Henry of Modiba Productions

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024