Q&A: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars

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Editor’s Note: Some answers were edited for length and clarity.

The Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars is an African band comprised of six members. They said their music sounds reminiscent of reggae beats to the untrained ear, but its roots are in traditional West African drumming. 

They formed their band in a Guinean refugee camp after fleeing Sierra Leone in the 1990s during violent civil wars. The band began performing for other refugees in the camps and have since received world recognition for its humanitarian efforts, starred in an award-winning documentary film and played shows all over the world. 

The band will perform a show in Austin on Wednesday at the Historic Scoot Inn on East Fourth Street. Before its show, lead singer and band founder Ruben Koroma, spoke with the Daily Texan for a Q&A.  

The Daily Texan: Will you tell me about the formation of the band? 

Ruben Koroma: The band was formed in a refugee camp. My self and my wife were forced to run away to a refugee camp.I was there in the camp doing nothing, and I thought of engaging myself in singing for the people.

It started with me and my wife until I got Francis Langba, who is a great musician from Sierra Leone. We kept looking out for musicians until we got everybody, and the band was formed. DT:How long did you stay in the refugee camp and what were the living conditions like?

 

RK:We stayed there for eight years. At the beginning we lived in a tent with 20 other families. The camp was constructed in the middle of the forest, and, in the middle of the forest, you have a lot of restraints. Sometime there were bad insects, like scorpions, and sometimes we experienced not having good water to drink. But we are very thankful to the angels who were working for the refugees. But it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t a good place to live. 

DT: During your stay at the refugee camp, you met some documentary filmmakers. What was your favorite memory working on the documentary?

RK: One of my favorite memories was when this film won an award in 2005.That was my first visit to the United States. The documentary won the award for best documentary film at the American Film Institute Festival in Los Angeles. I remember walking on the red carpet and nearly 200–300 journalists all struggling to take our photos. You know, it was a really big deal for me. I always remember that day. 

DT: Your music has been described as reggae, but you have corrected people to say that it is actually baskeda music. Could you tell me the more about baskeda music?

RK: It’s a music that is diminishing in our country. It’s dying off because, in Africa, we like to imitate.  There are many influences trying to get into the heads of Africans, and they seem to forget about most of their original culture.  But baskeda is about hand drums. In the 1950s, when I was a very small kid, I used to admire my father, who was a player of this kind of music. I used to be very close to him while they were drumming, singing and dancing. There is the big bass drum, and then you have little hand drums and shakers and people singing. It was very popular in the mid 1960s–1970s.

I always saw it growing up in Sierra Leone. But when I traveled to Guinea, I noticed that the Guineans had the same beats, but they call it “boom boomb tah.” It’s similar, but not exactly the same.  Both of these beats are also very similar to the reggae beats of Jamaica, so people are sometimes unable to distinguish the differences. But [baskeda] has an African feel that is not in the Jamaican reggae. 

DT: Where is your favorite place to tour?

RK: At this moment, my favorite is Hawaii. The people are very good people. When we arrived at the hotel, we just saw a gentleman marching towards us, and he said, “Aloha,” that means welcome. He was welcoming us with a smile and handing us beads. At the end of our shows, they would have beautiful ladies and kids come out and hang those beautiful leis around our necks. 

DT:What is one of the band’s proudest moments? 

RK:I would say when our second album, Rise and Shine, was the fifth album in the whole world. We felt very proud about it.

DT: How were you guys able to spread hope with your music to the people in the refugee camps? 

RK: It’s something that has to do with our homes and our ethnicity.  It all has to do with our culture. The ethnic group that I come from, They use music to comfort their lives — especially when they are having a hard time. They believe music can help you get over obstacles. When I find myself in a very bad condition, I thought I should keep singing. I kept my head up and tried to assemble people, too.