feature: positive revolution from freetown – sierra leone’s refugee all-stars

July 22, 2014

Reuben Koroma, leader of the mighty Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars band, had been performing music in Freetown before the bloody 11 year civil war left an estimated 50,000 dead in the small West African nation. Countless more were mutilated, raped and murdered by ruthless rebel forces, notorious for enlisting child soldiers and securing funds through the trade of blood diamonds. Along with his wife Afua, Reuben fled his homeland to neighboring Guinea, where they began 8 long years as outcasts in a refugee camp.

The Refugee All-Stars play a blend of West-African high-life music fused with roots reggae rhythms. The lyrics are mostly in Sierra Leone’s national language, Krio, and their voices carry the pain of a nation. They formed when Reuben and other inspired musicians residing at Kalia refugee camp realized that they had the potential to launch a revolution of their own – a positive revolution – with soul shaking music as their weapon of choice. As the Bob Marley song goes, “One good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain.”

And that’s what the Refugee All-Stars did. They hit their downtrodden fellow refugees with sweet music to ease the unbelievable pain and restore hope in a people that had long given up on that notion.

By Le Black Star, AFROPUNK Contributor *

In the touching documentary film titled after the name of the band, you see the Refugee All-Stars travel through various camps across Guinea to deliver this simple message to hundreds of thousands of their countrymen.

“The only thing I have to say on behalf of the band is that we are very happy to be among you since we are all facing the same situation.  We are refugees and we know your problems. But the only contribution we have is to de-traumatize the people. We want to dis-occupy the people from the worries they have. That’s why we suggest music.” – Reuben Koroma

In the film, one of the refugees recalls the horrific night the rebels murdered his parents in front of him and forced him to beat his child to death after severing his right hand. The scene left a couple of tear drops on my keyboard, but before I could wipe them, we were rejoicing to my favorite Refugee’s track, “Soda Soap,” from their powerful 2006 debut album “Living like a Refugee.



The brief moment the band played may have seemed like an eternity to the people in the various camps they visited. They appeared truly liberated from their worries as they danced ironically to songs referencing their own suffering. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

I caught up with Reuben on the phone recently while the band was recouping in Rhode Island during their tour of North America and Europe to promote their fourth album “Libation.” He recalled his music before the civil war broke out, when he mostly sang about love, beauty and peace. Witnessing senseless bloodshed and persevering through the hardships of refugee life added a somber dimension  to the band’s tone. Though the Refugee All-Stars lament about their plight, their music remains a positive and uplifting celebration. As Reuben put it, “We try to make music that will make people happy. We want to put people in a good mood.”

Reuben and the band still live in Sierra Leone and having recently returned from a trip to West Africa myself, we discussed the state of affairs in the continent that has been decimated by colonialism, slavery, civil wars, famines, government corruption, military coups, dictators, epidemics … the list goes on. And though unthinkable atrocities such as the case of the kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria continue to dominate African news, Reuben urges journalists to offer some balance by sharing positive African stories as well.

Today’s Africa is made up of self-governed states, however; the ghosts of colonialism continue to haunt the minds of the world’s second largest continent. According to Reuben, “Africans get educated but still remain Africans. People always think that what is coming from Africa is not very good. Africans have to change the perception that good things only come from the West. There are good things in Africa too.”

While Reuben sees modern technology such as the internet pushing social progress in Africa and holds an optimist’s perspective on Africa’s future, he is a little less thrilled about the chances of Sierra Leone’s national football team, the Leone Stars, qualifying for the FIFA World Cup anytime soon. When I asked him when the Leone Stars will be making their World Cup debut, Reuben responded with a chuckle.

“You know, Sierra Leoneans, we are not very good at football. We have few athletes in our country.”

Rightfully, football is not a major priority in Sierra Leone right now as the people continue to rebuild in the wake of one of the world’s great tragedies and deal with a recent outbreak of Ebola, which is claiming lives in the country right now. At least our brothers and sisters in Sierra Leone have the Refugee All-Stars band to provide a silver lining in what seems like an endless wave of troubles.

The band has come a long way from entertaining their fellow refugees with cheap instruments they put together from scraps to playing in front of thousands in some of the world’s premier music venues. Theirs is a tale of the human will to overcome great obstacles to heal a nation. And I think that is worth sharing.


* Le Black Star blog:; Facebook: Le Black Star; Twitter: @le_blackstar