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Refugee All Stars: Straight Outta Sierra Leone


Imagine a civil war ripping apart your country, and imagine you lost everything you knew and loved. Would you be able to reach inside yourself and find the strength to sing?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. REUBEN KOROMA (Member, Refugee All Stars): (Singing) You left your country to seek refuge in another man's land. You left your country to seek refuse in another man's land.

CHIDEYA: Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars band did just that. They came together as fighting closed in on the nation's capital in 1999. The musicians were forced to flee to a refugee camp. The All Stars wrote songs there to pass the time, and eventually the musicians got their hands on some instruments.

Since then, a film crew made a documentary about their journey. The band has cut a record and taken their music around the world. Tonight the Refugee All Stars are performing in Los Angeles, and two of the band members are here with me in our NPR West studios. Reuben Koroma and Black Nature, thanks for joining me.

Mr. BLACK NATURE (Member, Refugee All Stars): (Unintelligible).

Thank you, you're welcome.

CHIDEYA: I'm very glad to meet you guys because one of the themes that seems to unite us is how music can bring together people who are in times of trouble. What was it - Reuben, I'll start with you, that music helped you deal with during the time that you had to also deal with war?

Mr. KOROMA: Well, to start with, I was a musician before the war, and so when I was forced to quit my country, we came to a nearby country called Guinea, and we were registered as refugees, you know.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KOROMA: And when we started playing music in the refugee camp, it's like, you know, it's like we have something to do, you know, and then it really helped us to forget about what had happened to us, you know, and then we found out that the people really always come around us when we do - when we play our music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KOROMA: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

CHIDEYA: Your wife, Grace, is also one of the founding members of the group. What's it like to have gone through all of these things with her but also to perform with her?

Mr. KOROMA: Ever since we started, the idea of bringing - making a group -she's always supported me, you know, and so that's how she became a musician because she saw that I was alone, and there was nobody to at last support me. And when I started, I started with I alone. When I sing, then she responded. So it's like we started together.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KOROMA: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

CHIDEYA: Black Nature, how did you join the group, and what were you going through at the time?

Mr. NATURE: Well to start with, when we had the civil war way back in our country, then I fled into the next neighbor country. I was in a refugee camp, and Mr. Reuben also was in the refugee camp, as he was saying, and he was my teacher when I was in the refugee camp, you know, and…

CHIDEYA: What did he teach you?

Mr. NATURE: Well, he was teaching me - was it math?

Mr. KOROMA: Math, language.

Mr. NATURE: Teaching me different subjects, and I was so stubborn when I was in school with him, you know, but he's a man that I used to admire a lot. Whenever I seen him started playing the music, holding the guitar with friends, I would be like - come around there and listen to what they're doing, you know, and trying to get into it, you know. Then he thought that oh, this boy is - if I bring him up and try to incorporate with him, I think he'll be somebody (unintelligible) in future tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KOROMA: (Singing) (Unintelligible) that we have led.

Unidentified Men (Members, Refugee All Stars): (Unintelligible).

Mr. KOROMA: (Singing) (Unintelligible). Let us forgive and forget

Unidentified Men (Members, Refugee All Stars): (Unintelligible).

Mr. NATURE: When I was in my country, I used to see my family and got with friends and live happily, you know, but when I found myself in the refugee camp by myself and my grandma, and she's an old woman, you know, she can't take care of me, you know, and I was like just doing my thing. Of course, I was like totally traumatized because of what I've seen, what I saw.

CHIDEYA: When you say what you saw, what does that mean?

Mr. NATURE: Like the horrible things that happened, like killed people in front of me, and they killed my father in front of me, you know. And like burning of houses, you know, raping. I saw all this difficulties in my life, you know, so I was totally traumatized, you know, but when I find music, then it's like a therapy. It helps my trauma a lot.

(Soundbite of song, "Away from Conflict")

CHIDEYA: What's the favorite song that you've ever written, maybe something you've written with Reuben.

Mr. NATURE: Well, the favorite song that I have ever liked in my life, it's called "Away from Conflict." You know, it's actually a song that talks about what is going on in the country, like people who have power, when they get into a fight, the civilians will suffer because they have no power, and they have nowhere to go, you know, so they will suffer the consequences.

(Soundbite of song, "Away from Conflict")

Unidentified Men: (Singing) Away from conflict, (unintelligible).

Mr. KOROMA: (Singing) Will you sing it again?

Unidentified Men: (Singing) Away from conflict, (unintelligible).

Mr. KOROMA: (Singing) Again and again.

CHIDEYA: So Sierra Leone has held national elections, and there's an international court that's indicted some of the people that were implicated in the war. Do you feel, and Black Nature, I'll go to you first, and then you, Reuben, do you feel like things are on the right path for Sierra Leone? Do you have hope for your families who are there and for everyone there?

Mr. NATURE: Well, at this point in time I feel confident. Our country, it was in a darkness, like, for over 20 years, and recently when we had the new government and had a lot of good things like the country has started having light, you know, and I think it's amazing, and it makes me excited, and that just tells me that the country is going to come back the way it was.

CHIDEYA: Reuben?

Mr. KOROMA: We are very much happy that we've got peace, and the election has just been conducted, and the current president, I think he's very much hard-working because our country, which has been in darkness for 20 years, has been lit, and I believe that - because the period of time, he just came within three months, he was able to fix up the light. So I'm very optimistic that he's going to at least be a good leader and then work for the country.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Well, Reuben and Black Nature, thank you so much.

Mr. KOROMA: Thank you.

Mr. NATURE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Reuben Koroma and Black Nature are band-mates in the group Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, and they joined me here at our NPR West studios.

That's NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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