Reuben Koroma of the Refugee All Stars says the band, born of the civil war in Sierra Leone, still has an important job to do, both at home and abroad.
Music on the run: the Refugee All Stars
"Positive music can help make a change in people's lives," Reuben Koroma tells me over the phone from a tour bus rattling through California. "It's a powerful thing; it touches the soul." The singer and his band, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, formed in 2004 in a refugee camp in Guinea playing on jerry-rigged sound systems in the dust. Their original aim was, in Koroma's words, "to try to comfort, try to heal" their fellow refugees, many of whom had lost family or limbs in the civil war that tore Sierra Leone apart for almost a decade.
Since the All Stars were the subject of an award-winning documentary, they have toured the world, played with Aerosmith, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and contributed a song to the Blood Diamond soundtrack. Now they have just released their second album, Rise and Shine, which was recorded in Freetown and New Orleans, and are touring the west coast of America before jetting off to play at a handful of European festivals.
"Oprah's cool," Koromo says when I ask about some of the highlights of the past few years. "She treated us very well." He also looks back fondly on playing the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan. "I spoke to a Japanese journalist who told me that Japanese people don't dance to music, they just stare at the musicians," he says. "I told them that our music is African music, it can compel people to dance."
He was right. "That was a very serious moment to me," he says, not entirely seriously. "I thought, I've done something extraordinary." It's easy to see how the All Stars' mix of reggae, Sierra Leone's indigenous Bubu music, and jubilant vocal harmonies could get people moving: it has already won the band celebrity fans as diverse as Paul McCartney, Ice Cube and Angelina Jolie. It's a long way for a band that only started six years ago, when Koroma and his wife Grace joined up with the guitarist Francis John Langba (aka Franco), and the bassist Idrissa Bangura (aka Mallam), in the Kalia camp near Guinea's border with Sierra Leone, to entertain their fellow refugees.
Not even Kalia was safe, though, and after the camp came under attack from Guinean forces, the four-piece moved to the more remote and stable Sembakounya refugee camp, where they recruited more musicians and were given guitars, a microphone and a sound system by a Canadian relief agency. It was in Sembakounya that the American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White stumbled across the band and started filming them as they toured refugee camps over the course of three years.
When the fighting in Sierra Leone finally came to an end, Koroma and the All Stars moved back to Freetown, where they are now based. "It still hasn't recovered from the wounds of the war," Koroma says, "but it's better. It's calm." It was in Freetown that they laid down tracks that, interspersed with live recordings, became the basis for their 2006 debut album, Living Like a Refugee. Niles and White's documentary had been released the previous year, and the band quickly became an international sensation. They toured the world, hobnobbed with Winfrey, and recorded a song for the soundtrack of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Blood Diamond, which looks at Sierra Leone through the eyes of a smuggler and a refugee.
Koroma is equivocal about the film. "The story is good," he says. "I really enjoyed it." But, he adds, "what's funny about the film is that most of it doesn't look like Sierra Leone. You expect to see places that you recognise, but they're not there. That's confusing." After recording some songs for their second album in Freetown, the Refugee All Stars packed up their instruments again, and headed off to New Orleans to finish the record. The result, which came out in the US in March and in Europe last month, is Rise and Shine, an optimistic-sounding album that is tighter and more polished than the first, but still overflows with good-natured emotion.
The songs are in a mixture of English and Sierra Leonean dialects, with such titles as Global Threat and Muloma ("Let Us Be United"). The band is promoting the album with another world tour, which stops off in London for the Southbank Centre's Celebrating Sanctuary festival in June. Koroma says that it's important to him that people around the world hear about the situation in Sierra Leone, because it is not the only country to have gone through a horribly traumatic war. "Most of the messages in our songs are about what happened in our country," he says. "Things like what is happening in our country is happening elsewhere, so the message is really talking about everywhere. Sometimes after we have played a show, people's reactions are really positive. They come to us and say: 'You guys, what you're saying is really the truth.'"
Not only is the Refugee All Stars' aim to provoke conversations about the traumas of war on a large scale, they're also aiming to spread the power of music locally, too. "In Freetown," Koroma says, "we have many talented people, but most of the people do not have the chance to be in a band or have equipment to play. I want to create a place where many talented people who want to learn an instrument can go and practise. At the moment I've been working on that and we have a few instruments in Freetown where musicians who do not have access to play an instrument can come and play. We want to extend that. We want to create more opportunities in Sierra Leone."
As Blood Diamond demonstrates, Sierra Leone is linked in the minds of most people around the world with bloodshed and poverty. The Refugee All Stars and the young musicians they're encouraging show that there's much more to the country's heritage than that, and they're proving to people in similar situations that there is a way out. "People who have problems, people who are frustrated will be revived if they hear the greatness of a refugee all-star band," Koromo says proudly in the documentary named after his group. "They will say, yes, I am a refugee, and I know that refugees can excel."