These legends of the African music scene have now been touring extensively since their formation 15 years ago, spreading their socio-political message through a heady blend of roots reggae, fused with funky soukous. Having escaped their war-torn country, fleeing to neighbouring Guinea, Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars have gone from strength to strength, playing to audiences all over the world. Indeed, playing in its truest sense is exactly what was on show the other night at London’s 229 venue, as the band, fronted by their charismatic leader Reuben Koroma, with typical purity of playfulness, engaging the crowd at every turn.
As a product of a horrific civil war, it was always going to colour a vast amount of their work. Hailing from the aptly named capital city of Freetown, all of the band members managed to unite in the refugee camps of Kalia. Where Koroma met up with guitarist Francis John Langba and some other players and they began to make music. From the horrors of war, the joyful sounds of Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars were born.
In front of a sparse but enthusiastic audience, the deep, elongated soukous grooves gave us a canvas on to which Koroma was able to tell their story. As with most Africans, they harbour an acute sense of the value of water, both on a local and global scale. “Water is symbolic, water is life”, Koroma announces. “The world is so confused and you never know what will happen tomorrow. I’m going to give you the soundtrack.” Sadly, both water and war, often intrinsically linked, form a lot of this soundtrack. Throughout it all, patience, as a virtue, underpins woven stories of hope and progress. “Everybody is looking for progress”, says Koroma, recounting stories of refugees attempting to swim across the Mediterranean. Progress is both political and physical. In an act of condemnation, Koroma notes that “going to war can never be a problem solver”, ahead of their 2006 track, ‘Big Lesson’. Sounding very much like a classic Studio One reggae record, the style is in fact an age-old West African rhythm, known as baskeda. With so much movement of people, back and forth between Africa and the West Indies, it’s no surprise that these styles are so inter-connected.
Alternating lead vocals with Langba, Koroma told us that they wanted to see us get some love. Fully engaged and absorbing the on-stage energy, we got that love and more, reciprocating in kind with all manner of dancing and clapping. Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars have struggled their way out of war and the misery that goes with it and, through their music, they continue to try to raise awareness of the issues that plague all of humanity. Specifically, as we all should, they seek peace. They are trying to bring about positive change. As Koroma wisely says, “learn to respect what you can make for yourself, than what others make for you.”