These survivors of Sierra Leone’s civil war find deliverance through music

Boston Globe, October 20, 2006

The latest success story in African music began with a challenge to fate, a gesture of humanity by a group of people who had ample reason to give up on the species instead. When the Refugee All Stars formed in the Sembakounya refugee camp in Guinea, their country, Sierra Leone, was deeply mired in a civil war that raged from 1997 to 2002 with violence against civilians of a rare and grotesque brutality.

In 1999, when rebel forces reached the capital, Freetown, thousands of Sierra Leoneans fled to Guinea rather than risk being killed or, in the case of young people, abducted to serve as fighters or concubines. In the camps, lead singer Reuben Koroma encountered musicians he’d known before the war as well as new talent. Relief workers helped them locate some beat-up instruments, and the All Stars were born.

Some lucky breaks helped make the All Stars the global sensation they are today, with a documentary film by Zach Niles and Banker White on the festival circuit, a sleekly produced new album, “Living Like a Refugee,” and a touring schedule that brings them to the Paradise on Wednesday. But the original goal was something more fundamental and urgent, Koroma says on the phone from Conakry, Guinea, where the band was collecting its visas, because the US consulate in Freetown remains shut.

“People were so much confused, their mind was so much occupied with worries,” Koroma says. “It was very difficult to see a man in the refugee camp laugh or dance because there were a lot of worries in their mind thinking of what happened. But a lot of folks, when we strum the guitars and play the drums, seem to forget their problems and dance. For that moment, it’s like the captives are free.”

There was much trauma to overcome, as the musicians well knew. All lost loved ones, often in ghastly circumstances that the documentary unsparingly recounts. Two members had arms chopped off by the rebels, one after seeing his family killed and being forced to beat his baby to death with a mortar and pestle. The youngest member, teenage rapper Black Nature, was an orphan in the care of his grandmother, whom Koroma befriended.

“I liked him as a small boy, I was quick to discover his talent,” Koroma says. “He was very young. He lost his father, he lost his mother. He had only his grandmother, and she was very weak. So she said [to me], `You are my son, take care of this young boy.”’

Returning after the war to a ruined Freetown, Koroma says, felt “very strange.” But he was astonished to find the fellow members of his earlier band, the Emperors, still alive.

“After a long time, what made me happy is that I was given to meet with my bandmates,” he says. “I was so much excited to meet them again. I never thought they would be alive. It was a miracle.”

The refound musicians, including splendid guitarist Ashade Pearce, joined up with the All Stars, bringing its membership to 11. Their sound features clear calypso and reggae influences, a characteristic trait of Sierra Leonean music that reflects the country’s role, in colonial times, as a destination for freed West Indian slaves.

The melancholy title track, one of two recorded in the refugee camp without the benefit of studio technology, is roots reggae in the stripped-down style of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” – apropos for the All Stars’ message of uplift and fortitude. Other songs are classic, fast-paced African dance-floor pop, such as the contagious “Soda Soap.”

Lyrically, the All Stars rarely dwell much on the war itself. If anything, they are more concerned with the difficulties of life that predated, and survives, the conflict, and with the ironies that become apparent in times of crisis.

“Soda Soap,” for instance, refers to the cheap local soap that elites spurn in favor of imported beauty products – until they have no other choice. “Soda soap is locally made soap, but people want Palmolive,” Koroma says. “When there was war, all the shops were locked. All the people looking for expensive soap, respectable people like hajjis and politicians, started washing with soda soap. People should learn to respect what they can make for themselves.”

Such daily-life stories may seem small in light of the wartime experiences of many Sierra Leoneans. But Michael D. Jackson, a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School and the author of “In Sierra Leone,” says practical responses to the trauma may be more constructive than psychological intervention and judicial inquiries.

“My impression was that the war was already past,” Jackson says of a trip he took to Sierra Leone just a year after the conflict ended. “People didn’t want to talk about it. They wanted to handle the aftereffects, the returnees, their own way. For Westerners this is repression, signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. But the way Sierra Leoneans deal with any kind of adversity is through silence, and working it out through action.”

The All Stars don’t minimize the severity of what their country has undergone. “The consequence of war is terrible for every human being,” Koroma says. “Destruction, starvation, killing. It is productive to think about why it happened, because we learn from our mistakes.”

But they too are focused on the future, and finding ways to turn their good fortune as musicians into opportunities for artists and Sierra Leonean youth who face grim prospects in the country’s ravaged economy.

“One of my plans is to secure land and get a music and arts center,” Koroma says. “For the moment, we are trying to get land. Land in Freetown is so expensive. Now every member has secured a place to live. Thank God for that. We have great hopes and plans, if people will buy the record.”