“I don’t like war,” said Reuben Koroma, leader of the Afro-pop band the Refugee All Stars. “I like pleasure.” While this sentiment may not be particularly novel for a musician, it takes on added meaning in Koroma’s case. The Refugee All Stars, playing at the Skirball Center July 20, formed in a refugee ?camp in Guinea after fleeing a decade-long civil war in the neighboring country of Sierra Leone. Just a few years ago, the band’s six musicians had no reasonable expectation of making a CD, much less touring the U.S.
Their Cinderella story started when two young American filmmakers arrived in a refugee camp hoping to make a music documentary about the war that transformed the small, diamond-rich West African country of Sierra Leone into the poster child for a failed state. The filmmakers, Zach Niles and Banker White (yes, that’s his real name), found a group of musicians who were serious and professional, doggedly rehearsing as if their next gig was at the Kennedy Center instead of at a neighboring refugee camp. Under the circumstances, it was an act of faith that would have done Bob Marley, whom Koroma cites as his inspiration, proud.
When the United Nations told Sierra Leoneans it was safe to return home, many were too frightened to leave the camps. Hoping to persuade them, the UN sponsored a 30-day show-me trip to Freetown. For the Refugee All Stars, the chance to record a CD in Freetown proved impossible to resist — at least for most of the band. One of the film’s most touching moments comes when percussionist Mohammed, a haunted, sensitive-looking guy, comes down with a flulike illness on the day of departure. Anyone who has ever found it difficult to go home again will recognize the look in his eyes.
For the rest of the band, the trip paid off handsomely. In a Freetown battle of the bands, the Refugee All Stars were named most promising new band. Last year, when the documentary on their journey began sweeping prizes on the film-festival circuit (six and counting), the producers found it easy to give the All Stars what every musician really wants: promotion. Since then, the Refugee All Stars have spent the summer touring the U.S., playing at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and a host of other venues, and their managers are currently negotiating with a major label. Niles and White, originally greeted with the outdated pre-Bono attitude that “Africa doesn’t sell,” are also looking at a mainstream distribution deal.
The word used most often to describe the Refugee All Stars’ sound, a combination of reggae, traditional West African music, and hip-hop, is “infectious.” That’s not a word most people associate with Sierra Leone, a country best known for the rebels, many of them child soldiers, who cut off the hands and feet of ordinary people in a gruesome and low-budget campaign of intimidation in the 1990s.
The music is indeed infectious, but what’s more important is that the Refugee All Stars offer an alternate view of Africa, a glimpse into an indomitable and effervescent spirit that we can only hope, in this era of onrushing globalization, is hard-wired into all of us.
The Refugee All Stars documentary screens at the Skirball Cultural Center, Wed., July 19, 7:30 p.m. The Refugee All Stars of Sierra Leone perform at the Skirball, Thurs., July 20, 8 p.m.