When music was all they had, All Stars shined
As a member of the Emperors, Reuben Koroma sang largely for entertainment – at festivals in West Africa and for tourists in the bars and restaurants in his country, Sierra Leone – and for a paycheck. “Anywhere they pay us,” the 43-year-old Koroma told the Charleston (W.V.) Gazette, pinning down exactly where the Emperors performed.In 1991, a civil war began in Sierra Leone. Koroma, like some 2 million of his countrymen, one-
third of the population, found himself a refugee. Koroma landed in the Sembakounya Refugee Camp in the neighboring country of Guinea. In the dismal conditions, surrounded by thousands of similarly displaced people – and haunted by the ghosts of the thousands who were slain, including his parents – Koroma discovered other purposes for music.”The most important thing about music in the refugee camp is it helps make people who are sad, happy,” said Koroma, speaking by phone in a chirping, capable English. “People have psychological problems, are highly traumatized. They’ve lost family, property; they miss their country so much.”But music was a pleasure to them. Any time we played, they’d come around to listen. They concentrate on the music and forget their problems. It’s like the mind is occupied.”Making music eased Koroma’s pain too. “We were courageous to keep on playing,” he said. “No money was given to you; you play for the love of music. We found plenty of pleasure doing it.”In 2002, a trio of North American filmmakers arrived at the Sembakounya camp to document this phenomenon, of music being made under the harshest of circumstances. “Straightaway I started thinking, this thing is going to be exposed. There’s no way they’re going to screen this and people will not respond,” said Koroma. He was right; “The Refugee All Stars” earned the Documentary Award in its premiere, at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles last year.
Koroma and the band, which includes his wife, Efuah Grace, now have more than an on-screen presence. In addition to the movie, the filmmakers recorded a jam session in the camp. A year later, on a U.N.-sponsored visit to Sierra Leone, the band, supplemented by members of the Emperors, spent a week in Island Studios, in the capital city of Freetown.”Living Like a Refugee,” featuring two tracks recorded in the camp, was released in September. On the strength of the CD, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars performed last summer at the Bonnaroo and South by Southwest festivals. Their current tour, which lands at Aspen’s Belly Up Thursday, Nov. 23, has brought them through the States and crosses to Europe next month. The itinerary includes a Connecticut date next week opening for Aerosmith; Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler and Joe Perry appeared with the All Stars last month in Nashville.”Living Like a Refugee” leans toward reggae in its sounds and themes; while his father had played traditional goombay, Koroma was as much influenced by reggae, including African singers Alpha Blondy and Lucky Dube. The sound may be consistently upbeat, but the songs are split between those that warn of false prophets and thieves and those that celebrate Sierra Leone and the rising fortunes of the All Stars.I asked Koroma if it was difficult to make such music while living in desperate times; what I wanted to know was how he found the emotional strength to raise people’s spirits. Koroma’s answer came on a more fundamental level.
“It was difficult when we started,” he said. “If you listen to ‘Living Like a Refugee'” – one of the songs recorded in the camp – “you hear it’s made under refugee conditions.”Koroma then switched to address my meaning of “difficult.””We had no hope,” he said. “We took music as our only hope. We took what little we had and made music with it. It was difficult, but it was all we had.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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