Touring Band Formed in a Refugee Camp

Reuben and Ashade at the Cedar Cultural Center.

From the moment I walked into the Cedar Cultural Center the other night, I sensed that something special was going on. People were having a good time socializing on the patio, underneath beautiful, post-thunderstorm clouds. The American Refugee Committee, which teamed up with the Cedar Cultural Center for the concert, had information about their work on display. I have never liked concerts—probably the result of some strange genetic mutation causing a musical appreciation deficiency—yet I was excited for this one. On the eve of World Refugee Day, June 20, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars stopped at Minneapolis to play a concert as exceptional as the circumstances that brought them together.

In 1991, a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone caused people to flee their homes, only to find themselves in refugee camps in Guinea, displaced and traumatized. Two men, Reuben Koroma and Francis “Franco” Lamgba, started playing music together in one such camp to pass the time and escape from their pain. More musicians joined them when they relocated to another camp.

In a telephone conversation with one of the younger band members, Black Nature recounted how he came to the band through Reuben, his school teacher in the refugee camp. A self-proclaimed stubborn student, Black Nature liked to record his voice as he spoke about his strife and how the trauma of witnessing the killing of his family changed his life. Reuben saw the young rapper’s talent and encouraged him to do free style.

Reuben delights the crowd as he dances onstage.

According to Black Nature, their music was a “really big relief, not only for us, but for them, for everyone in the camp.” Listening to music gave other refugees a chance to escape from the horrors they had experienced. It gave them hope and a chance to dance.

In a concert far from the music’s roots, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars brought joy to Minnesotans. From young kids sporting glow stick headbands to the bearded man with a thick graying braid trailing down his back, and the women in long summer dresses dancing in circles, everyone was moving to the music. The uninhibited dancers in the audience were not the only ones enjoying themselves. The band appeared to be having as much fun as everyone else.

As I experienced the reggae-inspired music of this unique band, I could imagine the happiness they must have created in the refugee camps. It was easy to understand the healing aspect of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars’ upbeat music.

Since the band’s start with a few donated instruments, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have starred in a documentary by filmmakers Banker White and Zach Niles, toured the world, and raised awareness about their home country. Using their newfound fame and resources, they are giving back through their music. “There are tens of thousands of stories that need to be told,” says Black Nature, who plans to use the film to help youth in Sierra Leone tell their own stories of being child soldiers, living on the streets, and losing family. It seems their music has taken on a different meaning. No longer just a source of reprieve from the traumatic memories of refugees, it has become part of their efforts to raise awareness of the plight of the people of Sierra Leone. One thing has not changed: their music brings joy and the urge to dance to everyone who hears it.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (the band)
American Refugee Committee
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (the film)

1 comment:

  1. Hey All - wanted to invite you to check the new project that the filmmakers behind the Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars documentary are doing: www.weowntv.org - A filmmaking workshop for youth in Sierra Leone... Thanks for all you support! Zach Niles