All the members of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars lived in or near Sierra Leone’s capital city before fleeing Freetown during the country’s decade-long civil war.
They had lost everything else, including contact with family, friends, and the musical life they had known
Throughout most of the 1990s, Freetown remained relatively sheltered from the rebel war that had turned much of the West African nation into a bloody battlefield. Near the turn of the 21st century, however, rebels attacked the city and forced a panicked mass exodus to neighboring countries. Among the thousands who fled were Mr. Reuben Koroma and his wife Grace. Reuben and Grace had fared among the best, having fled Freetown in the midst of a rebel attack. In the camps, the couple had one another, but had lost everything else, including contact with family, friends, and the musical life they had known.
In camps like Kalia, discovering someone alive feels like a miracle
Walking through the squalid and dangerous Kalia Camp in Guinea, Reuben found Francis “Franco” John Langba, a musical brother from the pre-war music scene in Freetown. Franco had been separated from his wife and kids and had still not been able to learn anything of their fate. In camps like Kalia, discovering someone alive feels like a miracle. But the three took the miracle a step further by making music for their fellow refugees. Soon, the camp was caught in the middle of the region’s fractious politics, and the defenseless refugees were relocated to Sembakounya Refugee Camp in the remote countryside away from the volatile borders. It was there that Reuben, Grace, and Franco met their future band mates;
The newly dubbed Refugee All Stars acquired beat-up instruments and a rusted-out sound system and began to play for their fellow refugees
Arahim “Jah Voice”, so called for his perfect high pitch, who was forced to watch rebels kill his father before they cut off his arm at the shoulder and left him for dead. Mohammed Bangura had similarly been forced to watch the murder of his parents, wife, and infant child before having his hand severed. Alhadji Jeffrey Kamara, called “Black Nature”, is the youngest of the group. Orphaned by the war and tortured by police in Guinea where he had fled, Black Nature is considered an “adopted son” by the others. With the help of a Canadian NGO (CECI) the newly dubbed Refugee All Stars acquired beat-up instruments and a rusted-out sound system and began to play for their fellow refugees, bringing sorely needed hope and relief to a traumatized populace.
At Sembakounya Camp, American documentary filmmakers Banker White and Zach Niles along with Canadian singer-songwriter Chris Velan encountered Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. The first-time filmmakers, both living in San Francisco, had previously had substantial experience in Africa, and were in Guinea looking for stories that would balance the Western media’s focus on the region’s violence with a sense of African society’s beauty and resilience. When they were introduced to the All Stars, Niles and White knew they had found their story. They ended up following the band for three years as they moved from camp to camp and eventually returned home to face their war-torn country and reunite with family, friends and former band-mates, many of whom they believed may not have survived the violence.
The All Stars express their fierce loyalty to each other and to their people, and indeed to refugees of all the world’s terrible conflicts
It was during this trip that the current line-up of the band was cemented and their lifelong dream of recording in a studio was realized. It is in such grace notes and in the warmth, humor, and searing candor with which the band members bear their personal and collective wounds as well as in the music they make, that the All Stars express their fierce loyalty to each other and to their people, and indeed to refugees of all the world’s terrible conflicts. They must face the present with courage and the future with hope in order to save their lives. Thus the band’s return to a barely reconstructed Island Studios in Freetown, while the devastation and a shaky peace treaty signed in 2002 keep many refugees away, comes as a powerful message of renewal.