Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have risen like a phoenix out of the ashes of war and enflamed the passions of fans across the globe with their uplifting songs of hope, faith and joy. The band is a potent example of the redeeming power of music and the ability of the human spirit to persevere through unimaginable hardship and emerge with optimism intact. From their humble beginnings in West African refugee camps Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have performed on some of the world’s most prestigious stages and matured into one of Africa’s top touring and recording bands.
Throughout the 1990s, the West African country of Sierra Leone was wracked with a bloody, horrifying war that forced millions to flee their homes. The musicians that would eventually form Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are all originally from Freetown, and they were forced to leave the capital city at various times after violent rebel attacks. Most of those that left the country made their way into neighboring Guinea, some ending up in refugee camps and others struggling to fend for themselves in the capital city of Conakry.
Ruben Koroma and his wife Grace had left Sierra Leone in 1997 and found themselves in the Kalia refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone. When it became clear they would not be heading back to their homeland anytime soon, they joined up with guitarist Francis John Langba (aka Franco), and bassist Idrissa Bangura (aka Mallam), other musicians in the camp whom they had known before the war, to entertain their fellow refugees. After a Canadian relief agency donated two beat up electric guitars, a single microphone and a meager sound system, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were born.
American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White encountered the band in the Sembakounya Camp, and were so inspired by their story they ended up following them for three years as they moved from camp to camp, bringing much needed joy to fellow refugees with their heartfelt performances. Eventually, the war in Sierra Leone came to an end, and over time the All Stars returned to Freetown, where they met other returning musicians who joined the band’s rotating membership. It was there in the tin-roofed shacks of Freetown’s ghettos that Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars recorded the tracks that ended up, along with unplugged recordings made in the refugee camps, being the basis for their debut album, Living Like a Refugee, which was released on the label Anti in 2006.
The senseless deaths and illnesses of friends and family, including some of the band’s original members, and the slimming hope for great change in their country as a result of peace, has only strengthened the resolve of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars to do what they can to turn their country around. Their weapon in this struggle is music, and their message, while offering critique and condemnation of wrongdoing, remains positive and hopeful. Optimism in the face of obstacles, and the eternal hope for a better future motivates their lives and music.
In the summer of 2013, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars began preparing their fourth studio album. The production began with a month long residency at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. The band reunited with producer Chris Velan and daily rehearsal session took place at which the compositions and arrangements were refined. Members of the community often dropped by to help band members get to town to buy a phone card to call home or to cook them their beloved chicken and rice. After the rehearsals, recording began at Lane Gibson Recording and Mastering, the recording studio located at Cumbancha’s headquarters in an 1800s-era farmhouse. In this picturesque and relaxed setting, Velan and the All Stars, working alongside engineer Lane Gibson, spent four weeks tracking the songs that would end up on the album. News quickly spread in the community that a world-famous band from Africa was recording nearby, and volunteers emerged to help with transportation, lodging, meals and musical instruments. The comfortable setting was a far cry from the conditions of their first album, which was literally recorded around a campfire in a refugee camp in Guinea and in a hot, ramshackle, studio in Freetown, where electric shocks and power outages were common. The album was mixed by renowned British producer Iestyn Polson, known for his work with David Gray, Patti Smith, David Bowie and others.
After a 10-year plus adventure that has taken them from the squalor of refugee camps to the world’s biggest stages, Africa’s most inspirational band continues to ascend. Over the decade they have evolved to become one of Africa’s most recognized bands with fans across the globe. Their albums and live shows embodies and radiates the joy, passion for music and love for their fellow man that have made Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars a living testament to the resilience of the human spirit and an inspiration to hundreds of thousands of people across the globe.