Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars play Chili Pepper & Brew Fest |

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars play Chili Pepper & Brew Fest

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoThe Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars perform Friday, opening day of the Snowmass Chili Pepper & Brew Fest.

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – The crowd Friday at the Snowmass Chili Pepper & Brew Fest won’t be in urgent need of succor. Buzzing on good microbrews and soaking in the sublime Snowmass Village weather and scenery, bellies full of chili, and free to express themselves through twirling and singing, the audience will exemplify the good life.It might be, though, that nobody appreciates the serenity and security of the scene than the musicians who open the festival. Kicking off the music portion of the Chili Pepper & Brew Fest in the 4:30 p.m. slot are the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, a band that was born in a West African refugee camp. As Sierra Leone was torn by a devastating civil war through the 1990s, two million people, a third of the population, were forced into camps in neighboring countries. Among them were Reuben Koroma, who had been playing music from his teen years onward, and his wife and fellow singer, Efuah Grace. After the initial shock of being displaced to the Kalia refugee camp in Guinea wore off and boredom settled in, Koroma saw that what he had to offer was practically a necessity to stave off desperation.”That kind of stress – it took three or four months before I came to my senses and said, ‘This has happened. OK, now let me pick up my instrument, relieve the stress,” the 48-year-old Koroma said from a hotel room in Minneapolis, the night after a gig at the Cedar Culture Center. “I had a vision – it’s necessary to form a band. People want that.”In the decade since word spread about the music being played in refugee camps surrounding Sierra Leone, Koroma and his fellow musicians have come a long way from the destitution. The group, named Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, have gone from displaced persons to prominent musicians, playing at the Bonnaroo Festival and Japan’s Fuji Rock. They opened a show for Aerosmith in Connecticut, and joined Aerosmith on a version of “Give Peace a Chance” recorded for the John Lennon tribute/fundraiser album, “Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur.” Their second album, 2010’s “Rise & Shine,” was produced by Steve Berlin, of Los Lobos, and featured contributions from rising New Orleans star, Trombone Shorty. Their latest album, “Radio Salone,” released in April, was produced by Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod, a member of the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat group Antibalas and renowned as the producer of “Dub Side of the Moon,” the Easy Star All-Stars’ reggae remake of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”Koroma says that the passage of time has changed the Refugee All Stars. Only two members of the band, singer Alhaji Jeffrey “Black Nature” Kamara and Koroma himself, were in the camps when the group was founded. Two other original members – including Francis John Langba, the guitarist who was the first musician recruited by Koroma and who helped put together the band – have died. As they become more removed from their formative experience, the Refugee All Stars have defined themselves more as musicians and less as refugees.”We are changing because out first album we sang about our experience, living like refugees, that bitter experience,” Koroma said. “Now we are singing about love, unity. We are trying to expose out traditional culture on the new album.” Koroma points to the new album’s “Goombay Interludes” – a series of short tracks that emphasize the deep rhythmic quality of music typically played at parties, weddings and festivals in Sierra Leone.”Radio Salone,” which features the song titles “Work It Brighter” and “Remake the World Again,” also reflects the new reality that surrounds Koroma and his countrymates: Sierra Leone is a radically calmer place than it was 15 years ago.”It’s really improving gradually,” Koroma, who lives in the capital city of Freetown, said. “The new government is really working hard to repair the roads, the places. There’s electricity in Freetown – it used to be the darkest town in the world, trust me. Now it is lit. And I’m very optimistic that Freetown will really develop.”Certainly the brightest aspect of existence in the refugee camps was music. Koroma said making music for the other refugees was “a real pleasure.””We had nothing else to do in the camp,” he said. “It’s a confined place; you can’t go walking around. Sitting around doing nothing is not a good idea. So we put out intentions into singing every day, to reform our lives.”The equipment they used was meager – “one guitar, improvised drums, really crude instruments. It was a struggle to put it on. All we had was a powerful voice,” Koroma said.But the need was great, the response from the other refugees was enormous, so Koroma and his mates were being sent, with the assistance of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, to play at other camps in the region. At the Sembakounya camp, they were witnessed by American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White. The pair followed Koroma and his crew for three years and made the 2005 documentary, “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars,” which earned the Documentary Award at the AFI Fest. A year later the debut album “Living Like a Refugee” was released, and the combination of a compelling back-story – some of the tracks on the album were recorded in the refugee camps – and the potent sound, a mix of West African styles and rootsy Jamaican reggae, captured the public’s imagination.The camps didn’t make Koroma a musician; before he was displaced, he had been a member of the Emperors. But being a refugee lit a new kind of fire in him.”Sometimes when musicians find themselves in a bad situation, it gives him more inspiration to write songs,” he said. “We send our inspiration into writing songs about what happened to us. It gave us a big, big inspiration.”Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars find themselves in a new place: a peaceful Sierra Leone, hanging with Aerosmith, recording in fine studios on excellent equipment, touring the world. But Koroma finds he doesn’t need despair as a reason to sing. All he needs is people and emotions to connect with.”If we have a bad things, we sing about them, and if we’re having happy things, we sing about that,” he said. “Musicians are there to express the people’s mind.”Even if Koroma is now more all-star than refugee, he is well aware that he’s one of the lucky ones. So his singing comes from a more universal place rather than personal experience.”Because I know what we’ve been through is still happening,” he said. “There’s a lot of that in the world. The Refugee All Stars are the voice of the refugees. We still want to do more singing for our refugee brothers. Because we know how bitter and terrible it is to be a refugee.”

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