The plight of the refugee in today’s war-torn world is captured in the African proverb: “When two elephants are fighting, the grass dem’ a-suffer.” So it was in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002, when the government and various rebel factions carried out a brutal civil war in which the terrorizing of civilians — by killing, mutilation, rape and forced conscription — was common practice on all sides. The war sent hundreds of thousands of ordinary Sierra Leoneans fleeing to refugee camps in the neighboring West African nation of the Republic of Guinea. That’s where the remarkable story told by the new documentary Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars began.
On the Conflict in Sierra Leone
As many as 75,000 people were killed by 1999 in Sierra Leone during its civil War. Idrissa Conte from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) talks about the political context and the violence on civilians that resulted from the conflict in Sierra Leone. Watch Video
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are a band of six Sierra Leonean musicians who have been living in Guinea. Many of their family and friends were murdered in the violence, leaving them with physical and emotional scars that may never heal. Despite the unimaginable horrors of civil war, they were saved through their music. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars chronicles the band over three years, from Guinean refugee camps back to war-ravaged Sierra Leone, where they realize the dream of recording their first studio album. And so begins a musical phenomenon that is making the world hear the voices of West Africa’s refugees while drawing the accolades of musical superstars Keith Richards, Paul McCartney, Ice Cube (one of the executive producers of the film), and Joe Perry.
Walking with his wife, Grace, through the squalid and dangerous Kalia camp in Guinea, Reuben Koroma was happy to find Franco John Langba, a “musical brother” from the prewar music scene in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital. In camps like Kalia, discovering someone alive feels like a miracle. But the three took the miracle a step further by making music for their fellow refugees. The camp had already become embroiled in Guinea’s fractious politics, and soon the unwanted Sierra Leoneans were relocated to the Sembakounya camp in the remote countryside. It was there that Reuben, Grace and Franco were joined by three other refugee musicians and acquired beat-up instruments and a rusted-out sound system.
At Sembakounya the newly formed Refugee All Stars, led by Reuben, had another fortuitous encounter — with American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White and their musical director, Chris Velan. The filmmakers, both living in San Francisco, had previously had substantial experience in Africa and were in Guinea looking for stories that would balance the Western media’s focus on the region’s violence with a sense of African society’s beauty and resilience.
When they were introduced to the All Stars, Niles and White knew they had found their story. That was in August 2002, and the band was just preparing, under the auspices of the U.N. refugee agency, to tour other refugee camps in Guinea. The filmmakers followed the All Stars on that tour — where they were wildly received — and over the following three years as the members worked on their songs, wrestled with the lasting traumas of the war and ultimately returned to Freetown, under an uneasy peace settlement, to record their first album, Living Like a Refugee. (Information on the band’s album and U.S. tour, beginning June 8, 2007, is available at www.refugeeallstars.org.)
Despite all the recent hoopla in the group’s life, including a tour of music festivals throughout Europe, North America and Japan, the band and its music remain close to the reality of the camps that gave them life. The songs on Living Like a Refugee, including the title track, “Bull to the Weak,” as well as “Weapon Conflict,” and “Compliments for Peace” speak directly from the refugees’ experience — against war, and the hatred, greed and brutality that accompany it.
As Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars so vividly reveals, no amount of Western entertainment glitz could sweep away the pain and terror that gave the band its soul and which, paradoxically, led to buoyant, hopeful and even joyous music. With its own blend of traditional Sierra Leonean goombay, West African high-life, reggae and hip-hop, the All Stars are bonded by the determination to do no less than “take the suffering of the people and make a song of it.” In this, there is no distance between them and their subject — the suffering is indelibly their own.
Reuben and Grace had fared among the best of Sierra Leone’s refugees, having fled Freetown in the midst of a rebel attack. In the camps, the couple had one another but had lost everything else, including contact with family, friends and the musical life they had known.
Franco had been separated from his wife and kids and had still not been able to learn anything of their fates. Of the other bandmates, Arahim “Jah Voice,” so called for his perfect high pitches, was forced to watch rebels kill his father before they cut off his arm at the shoulder and left him for dead. Mohammed Bangura had similarly been forced to watch the murder of his parents, wife and infant child before having his hand severed. At 15, Alhadji Jeffrey Kamara, called “Black Nature,” is the youngest of the group. Orphaned by the war and tortured by police in Guinea, to which he had fled, Black Nature is perhaps the most traumatized and is considered an adopted son by the others.
Yet it is in such grace notes — in the warmth, humor and searing candor with which the band members bear their personal and collective wounds — as well as in the music they make, that the All Stars express their fierce loyalty to one another and to their people, and indeed to refugees of all the world’s terrible conflicts. They must face the present with courage and the future with hope in order to save their lives. Thus the band’s return to a barely reconstructed Island Studios in Freetown, while the devastation and a shaky peace treaty signed in 2002 keep many refugees away, comes as a powerful message of renewal.
Says co-director Zach Niles: “Even amidst unimaginable hardships, we knew the All Stars’ story would be not only a celebration of what is beautiful about Africa, but what is beautiful about the human spirit — the willingness to overcome adversity, the ability to forgive, the desire to share hope with others.”
Adds co-director Banker White: “From the beginning, we would joke that Reuben knew what we were doing there better than we did. Reuben said they had been writing and practicing all along and were just waiting for us to arrive. He really was writing songs for the whole world to hear.”
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars is a production of SodaSoap Productions, LLC.