SEATTLE – They sing of conditions most Americans have only read about – of walking for miles to escape bloody war and death.
Their music, delivered through a soulful mix of reggae and West African goombay, speaks of the men behind the atrocities – monsters so evil they would force a father at gunpoint to murder his own child or doom the lives of dozens of strangers.
But the Refugee All Stars, a group of Sierra Leone musicians who came together about six years ago in a crowded refugee camp in Guinea, West Africa, also sing of hope and forgiveness and of the endurance of the human spirit. For, during some of their bleakest days, music became their escape. Using beat-up instruments and a rusted-out sound system donated by a Canadian charity, they uplifted themselves.
In the process, they enriched the lives of thousands of other refugees around them.
“Our songs relate to our condition as refugees,” said Reuben Koroma, 42, the bandleader, songwriter and lead singer. “I took all the problems and suffering of the refugee people together and wrote songs about it.”
The All Stars range from an 18-year-old orphaned rap singer who seeks to emulate American rap artist Busta Rhymes, to a 50-something Rastafarian who plays a mean guitar.
“These are people who lived through some of the most incredible conditions and saw horrific things happening around them and decided to make the best of their lives through music,” said Magdaleno Rose-Avila, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), an advocacy group for immigrants and refugees. The group’s recent Seattle concert to benefit the NWIRP was one stop on its international 26-city summer tour.
“They have a message that resonates with refugees all over the world. These are monumental figures in the human struggle. They are proof that there is hope for humanity.”
Many have already seen the Refugee All Stars’ story. Their experiences are the subject of a documentary included in this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. Last year, the film, also called “The Refugee All Stars,” took top honors at the American Film Institute’s International Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Others have heard it. One disc on their two-disc album, “Living Like a Refugee,” is field recordings from the refugee camps in Guinea. They recorded the other in the capital city of Freetown in post-civil-war Sierra Leone.
That war over political power and control of Sierra Leone’s rich diamond mines spanned 11 bloody years – from 1991 to 2002. By the time it ended, more than 50,000 people had been killed and many more displaced in refugee camps.
That history – of war, loss and displacement – bonds every member of the band.
In the documentary, one member who had witnessed the murder of his parents and wife speaks of having a gun pointed at his head by rebels and being ordered to kill his own son or force the murder of total strangers.
He obeyed, taking his own child’s life to spare others. And the rebels still cut off his hand.
Koroma also lost his parents to the war: His father was killed by a machete-wielding rebel and his mother was shot to death as she tried to flee.
In 1997, captured and tortured, Koroma was eventually freed and with his wife, Grace, fled to neighboring Guinea. For seven years he lived among 300,000 other refugees in sprawling United Nations camps just across the northern border of Sierra Leone.
A musician before the war, Koroma found others at the Kalia Camp who had shared the music scene with him around Freetown. They began playing music together.
In 2000, their safety was threatened after the Guinean army and its citizens attacked the camps, believing they had become staging grounds for cross-border rebel attacks. The refugees were transferred to the Sembakaunya Camp near the center of Guinea.
Itching to get a band started but having no equipment, Koroma and another band member submitted a proposal to the Canadian relief agency, Le Centre Canadien d’Etude et de Cooperation Internationale (Canadian Center for International Studies and Cooperation). The group donated two “beat-up electric guitars,” a microphone and a well-used sound system, giving birth to a band in exile.
With the war over, the group in 2003 took a difficult trip back to Freetown as part of a program by the United Nations to help refugees decide about repatriation. The documentary captures the men’s emotions over the journey home.
Not all wounds have healed. Vocalist and percussionist Mohamed Bangura, the member forced to kill his son, did not return to Sierra Leone, Koroma said. He also is not on the current tour with the group.
Sierra Leone itself is healing though. “There’s no fear, there’s no more war,” Koroma said. “You can move anywhere you want in the country.”
But huge challenges remain. “There are no jobs – young people are looking for work and there is none. There’s no electricity anywhere, even in the capital city. If you have small money you can buy a generator. The roads are bad and most of the houses are in need of repair. Lodging is a problem.”
So touring is welcome. This is the band’s second tour outside West Africa. The Refugee All Stars visited three U.S. cities earlier this year and were so well received, they saw a reason to come back.
“For all the places I’ve traveled to, I know the American people are good,” he said. “They appreciate our music and they treat us well.”