Reuben Koroma, leader of the Refugee All-Stars, remembers what surprised him most during his band’s first tour of America, earlier this year: that we were not all shooting each other. “In Africa,” he says by phone from Freetown, Sierra Leone, “I’d hear many stories about Americans, and sometimes we watch the American movies, the ones with shooting. So everybody here in Africa expected Americans are just wild people—they can just shoot you and then you die. But when I came to America, I saw something strange: the Americans were gentle people. They were good people. They were ready to offer all kinds of things to make us happy.”
That Koroma and the Refugee All-Stars were in America at all—reaping praise as the stars of an award-winning documentary film bearing the band’s name, performing before tens of thousands at the Bonnaroo festival, New York’s Central Park SummerStage, and other venues—was in itself something of a hitherto unimaginable dream come true. Only a few years earlier, they’d all been living in Guinea in makeshift hovels fashioned from tarpaulins, forced from their homeland by a bloody civil war that, from 1991 until 2002, left thousands dead and injured, a marathon nightmare whose real-life violence far exceeded Koroma’s vision of a trigger-happy America.
The road that took these musicians—Koroma, his wife Efuah Grace, Frances John “Franco” Langba, Abdul Rahim Kamara, Mohammed Bangura and the war-orphaned teenage rapper Alhaji Jeffrey “Black Nature” Kamara—to the Guinean refugee camps and into one another’s lives was paved with scars and traumas, and the alternative was far from paradise.
“You have left your country for another man’s land, waiting for someone to come to help you,” Koroma says, recalling the frustrating conditions in Guinea. “Some months some people have their supplies, some months they don’t. You have lost all of your good relationships, your contacts, your money and your property. But I know that thinking about my problems will never solve my problems. So the only thing I will do is to occupy myself with the music.”
The band’s mix of roots reggae, Afropop, hip-hop and traditional West African goombay music fused with its direct English-language lyrics addressing the brutality, struggle and, ultimately, the hopefulness through which the displaced Sierra Leoneans survived their situation, began the healing process. In fact, Living Like A Refugee is one of the most uplifting releases of recent years. All the more so when one considers the band’s history. That the All-Stars’ album—the sessions for which marked the first time any of them had set foot inside a recording studio—is now available, so the world can hear their music and experience their journey, is a small miracle.
Another miracle has been the documentary about group, which has caused a stir at film festivals around the world, subsequently gaining acclaim amongst the general film-going public as a must see film in 2006. Knowing a good story when they hear one (and how to tell it themselves), Banker White and Zach Niles are the 33-year-old first-time documentarians who created The Refugee All-Stars. Former college buddies living in the Bay Area, they had both spent semesters in Africa and knew they wanted to return and make a film there. What that film would be about they had no idea.
“Our idea wasn’t to make a music documentary or a film about the civil war in Sierra Leone,” says White. “Our intention was to show West Africans as people, but do so by giving a musician the ability to tell his own story.”
During their first trip to the Guinean camps, the aspiring filmmakers observed traditional choral groups, dancers and musicians. They were at their ninth camp, Sembakounya, when, says White, “We met this guy on a bike and said, ‘Do you know any musicians?’ He took us to this little bar a refugee had built, with a sign that said The Place To Be. We heard p