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Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars: Hope through music

Rachel Kiely
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily/Zach Smith
ALL |

ASPEN – When a man is forced to leave his homeland and sees more atrocities in a year than most see in a lifetime, an unexpected turn of events occurs when he creates music. Surprisingly, this music does not complain or strike out in anger, but instead provides hope and inspires others.

Sierra Leone needed hope. A civil war ravaged the country from 1991-2002. As a result, thousands of people were moved to refugee camps in Guinea and neighboring Liberia. Nestled in the midst of families torn apart and lives put on hold, music started from the most unlikely of places. Enter Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, a band whose very existence is an inspiring testimony to the power of the human spirit.

Reuben Koroma, the driving force and visionary of the band, which performs in Aspen on Tuesday, April 26, had a love for music and a love for his people. As a refugee in The Republic of Guinea, he felt the rest of the refugees needed some music to brighten their spirits. With fellow band member Francis John Langba (Franco), auditions were held in search of musicians in Sembakounya Refugee Camp. With two worn electric guitars and a microphone donated by a Canadian relief agency, the music began.

The band grew to six members and toured refugee camps, playing music and allowing the people a chance to dance and forget their worries for a brief time. The goal: To lift the spirits of fellow refugees in a place that was not their home.

“I want to extend [hope] to everyone in the world. I believe in a peaceful world,” says Koroma, the wise sage who writes the lyrics for the music.

When documentary filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White stumbled upon the story, they realized the power of hope these musicians were distributing. After following the All Stars for three years, a documentary film emerged; its title sharing the name of band.

After a slew of film festival awards, the documentary gained the group of musicians international attention and they embarked on a tour around the world. They appeared on Oprah, their music was featured in the film “Blood Diamond,” and they’ve shared the stage with Aerosmith and Keith Richards. With fame on their side, the band released a second album in April 2010, “Rise and Shine.”

While the first album, “Living Like a Refugee” (2006), was a collection of lyrics penning the emotions of war and the hardships of a refugee, “Rise and Shine” is just what it sounds like: An album about hopeful new beginnings.

“The country is stable. People still have to rehabilitate things that have been destroyed. But the most precious thing right now is peace,” Koroma says.

The new album centers around love, hope and prosperity. The sound is more refined, but the touching lyrics remain intact. The sweet laid-back sound of “Bend Round the Corner” features percussion and tender harmonies. All of this music comes straight from Koroma’s soul.

“I do some meditation; I just imagine. After that I write a song,” Koroma says.

This man belongs among the peace-loving greats with the likes of John Lennon and Martin Luther King Jr. His songs are a jubilant expression of joy even when surrounded by hardships.

“I know I have a purpose in the world,” Koroma says. “I have a mission.”


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