Interview: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars

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We left Sierra Leone on the 1st of April of 2014 with the expectation of doing a six month world tour, then return to our country, but before we ended our tour there was the news about ebola killing people. So as international icons we felt that it wouldn’t be very good for us to go back home.

 This wasn’t the first time the Refugee All Stars had had to turn their backs on Sierra Leone. Because of the desperate eleven-year war the band had to leave their homeland in 1997 for Kalia refugee camp, where the group was formed. A Canadian relief agency donated instruments and equipment and they began touring other refugee camps with their music. After many years walking along this musical path, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have become worldwide celebrities, but they have never lost sight of their original mission: to make the world a little better.

This time they left their country just over a year ago with no chance of returning in the immediate future. However, they have found other ways of helping their families and friends back home, giving hope to people in need and showing that their hearts are as big as their popularity.

The latest project they’ve embarked on is a British Red Cross initiative addressed at helping refugees, another humane gesture to add to their generous career. We met the band members at the British Red Cross HQ in London and shared some light-hearted, all-smiling moments with them. Our interview began with the reason why they were in the British capital, The Long Road EP that they will be recording soon for the Red Cross.

As Ruben Koroma, bandleader and founder member of the ensemble revealed, “everything started when we received a call from our manager saying that the Red Cross UK wanted us to be involved with a recording project to raise awareness about refugee issues in Europe.”

 He continued, “During our last tour we met a lot of refugees from different countries, and we reckoned there must be a big influx of refugees in Europe, so we felt obliged to get involved in this programme”. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, as their name clearly reflects, had themselves spent many years in a refugee camp, and they won’t ever forget that experience. “It is because we come from the same situation that we are keen to contribute to the refugees’ cause.”

We asked Ruben how music has become a loudspeaker for their commitment.

His response was, “Music is a very simple media. I’ll give you an example: most people can read, but many of those don’t have the ability to read complex things, but you know they can always listen to music whether they are sitting in a taxi or at home. That’s why I think that music is the simplest way to get a message across to people.”

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars has always capitalised on the function of music, transforming it into something more than mere artistic expression. “We are trying to spread positivity, peace and unity through our music. Our message has always been to promote peace and harmony. Because we had war in our country and we have been through too many horrible stories, we hate war. We have reached the point where we don’t want more people to be displaced or killed and properties wasted because of wars.”

Their decision to join The Long Road EP project is another bold statement of their feelings. Ruben explained, “We’re going to record one song for the project, but actually we don’t know yet how it is going to be. We just know the context of our song, and it will be a song about courage”. The aim of the Red Cross project is to pair UK and foreign artists with refugees and asylum seekers living in Britain. After having listened to or read the refugees’ life stories, the artists will compose songs inspired by those events. That is how the Sierra Leonean musicians got in touch with a Georgian refugee and read her story. “They gave us a story to read about a Georgian lady who suffered a lot because of war. I immediately realised that she had a lot of courage, and I think that it is only courage that can help refugees to get along in very bad situations. Some people can be dragged down by that kind of situation, but others can also be uplifted and face their problems with courage.”

We asked the musicians how they felt when reading those words, and whether they revived their own bad memories. Ruben sincerely answered,I have always felt that it is my responsibility to share my experience because it is very important to talk about these things. When you harbour deep feelings like grief it’s only when you have the chance to express them that you are finally free. That’s the only occasion you truly feel liberated. That is also why we feel really good about contributing to a project that will help to raise awareness”.

The refugee cause is not the only campaign in which Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are involved. Only few months ago they triggered global interest in the West African health crisis too, contributing to a project that helped reinforce the ongoing problem of the ebola epidemic.

“Ebola is still a big problem in Sierra Leone, but luckily they have finally been able to contain it. The situation is no more critical than one year ago and people can be optimistic”. But, as Ruben told us, the ghost of ebola is still lingering around the region, and families who have been quarantined are being ostracised by their communities. “The virus has claimed the lives of many people in West Africa. We cooperated with a gentleman called Jim Logan when the situation was at its worst. We went into the studio and recorded a jingle to inform people about how to avoid contracting ebola. Then that guy distributed the jingle around, playing it on every radio station in Sierra Leone. Since many people in Africa can’t afford a television they listen to radio, through which we can spread important messages. When ebola struck, musicians were making music to sensitise people on how to prevent from contracting the disease and I think that helped. Another importance thing to take into consideration is that in Africa, most of the people don’t go to school, but they can listen to music and receive its messages”.

A musician who has considerably helped many people in Sierra Leone is Jimmy B, and Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are really eager to acknowledge his commitment to their country. “We’d like people to listen to Jimmy B because he’s a guy who’s done a lot for our country and its people. He’s the guy who brought equipment and instruments to Sierra Leone and helped the young, encouraging them to play and go to the studios. That’s why I think he’s a really important artist to discover for the Western audience”.

Beyond doubt Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars had a crucial impact on their country’s music scene, for no other reason but their determination to recover Sierra Leone’s musical roots. Their latest album Libation mirrored that sentiment. However Ruben seemed a little disappointed when we mentioned this. “Most of the young musicians in Sierra Leone are trying to imitate foreign influences. They are overlooking their traditional heritage. We are the elders and we think that we have to refresh the memory of our tradition. The culture of our country is really rich and our music has very dynamic rhythms, and we reckon that people would love to listen them. So we can’t understand why the young are distancing themselves from their roots trying to imitate American and European artists. If it was up to us we’d never go away: we are really keen to stay original”.

Having said that, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have been influenced by many different traditions. “That’s very true. It’s not just because we were refugees and lived abroad for many years, but even before that time we were listening to Jamaican, American, Congolese and Ghanaian music. So we have always had many influences from all over the world, and we tried to put them together to make our music more dynamic”.

And they will surely show their dynamism in their next work. “At the moment we’re just trying to promote our latest album, but I have to admit that we’re already heading towards making our fifth one. We still have to think about our new material, but it’s something we’re already planning for.” But their top priority at the moment is to devote heart and soul to their Long Road EP contribution, a small gesture that can go a long way.

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