From 1991 to 2002, the tiny West African country of Sierra Leone—a diamond-rich former British colony and one-time base for the transatlantic slave trade—was disfigured by civil war
as gruesome sparring between Revolutionary United Front rebels and government forces led to the murder, dismemberment and displacement of nearly two-million civilians.
Refugees—most leaving family behind and many now missing limbs—promptly fled to UN refugee camps in neighboring Guinea and Liberia. At Sembakounya Refugee Camp in rural Guinea, a small group of supplanted musicians began churning out a beguiling mix of reggae, African goombay, rap, and folk/roots music, hugging beat-up guitars and homemade drums, lamenting losses and detailing the trials (“Today you settle / Tomorrow you pack”) of their newly transient lives.
Their music, with its shaky rhythms and tight, infectious choruses, had instant legs: The Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, now 11 members strong, were celebrated in Living Like A Refugee, Zach Niles’ and Banker White’s acclaimed documentary, and their debut was promptly picked up in the U.S. by Anti- Records. Last summer, the group played for its largest audience to date: nearly 75,000 at Bonnaroo. Frontman Reuben Koroma—whose heartbreaking grin shines big in Living Like A Refugee—explains, “I like the United States because of the approach of the people. They are accepting of our music, and they received us with ease, and we really appreciated it. We enjoyed the hospitality of Americans. They were nice to us. We had good food. We made good friends.”
Koroma, now back in Sierra Leone, hasn’t returned to Sembakounya since he left. “Many people are still coming from the camps. One of our members is still in the camp. He refuses to come back to Sierra Leone because of what happened to him during the war.” Still, Koroma remains cautiously optimistic about the future of his country. “I am so much happier now. There is no more war. People are not fighting. You can travel around the country without fear. The only problem we are having is extreme poorness. [The] people are very poor.”