Every band has a story.
And any story worth retelling has its fair share of obstacles, setbacks and tough times. After all, such things give narratives their dramatic arcs, their power to draw people in and—if the story is good enough, resonates deeply enough—to touch lives.
As far stories go, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars has one that goes far beyond the sleeping-on-floors, eating-from-convenience-stores, broken-down-van experiences that comprise the hard-luck story of many bands.
If you’re unfamiliar with their origin story, the name of this musical collective should give you some indication as to from whence they hail geographically, which should then, in turn, give you some indication as to the fact that this is not your average band.
They hail from Sierra Leone, from a country and a time marked by a particularly bloody and cruel civil war. Beginning in 1991, by the time a truce was called in this small West African nation, the war—fueled, in part, by the desire for control of the country’s lucrative diamond mines (gems that would come to be known the world over as “conflict gemstones” or “blood diamonds,” if you’re less polite)—would claim more than 50,000 lives, see much of the country’s infrastructure destroyed and more than two million of the country’s residents in the refugee camps that dotted the landscape just across Sierra Leone’s borders.
It’s not exactly the kind of situation that seems conducive to nurturing the kind of musical talent that would go on to become well-known the world over.
However, some people, when they are displaced, oppressed and up against it, grow silent. Others, it seems, cannot be silenced, choosing to sing out, loud, proud and in defiance of their situation and surroundings. So it goes with the Refugee All Stars.
Displaced from the city of Freetown, musician Ruben Koroma and his wife Grace, found refuge—rough and rudimentary though it may have been—from the violence in one of the sprawling camps that were the products of the war, and there they reconnected with musicians they’d known before the war. They began to make music in the camp for the entertainment of the rest of the refugees, aided by two beat-up electric guitars, a microphone and a battered sound system.
Their songs, which viewed the horrors of war and refugee life through a lens of celebration and peace, began to gain the notice of more than just their fellow refugees, and when a documentary film crew showed up to film the phenomenon that had become the Refugee All Stars, it was a lot more than just the shot at fame it would be for other bands in other situations—for them, it was their ticket out.
It’s been a decade since the civil war in Sierra Leone officially ended, and several years since the Refugee All Stars returned to Freetown—as a band rather than just a ragtag group of people in exile—but their music—and the sense of celebration and joy that fuels it—has carried on, taking them all over the world, and to places they likely never dreamed they’d visit back when they were limited to the square footage contained within the fences and walls of a “refuge” in a country that wasn’t their own.
Of course, back then, they weren’t trying to play and sing their way around the world and into the hearts and lives of the millions of people who have seen them perform over the years—they were simply trying to make it home.
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