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From Refugee to All Star

Michael May

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Reuben M. Koroma
(Jane Richey)
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When I first met the Refugee All Stars at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin in 2006, they were virtually unknown. The band had formed in a dusty refugee camp in Guinea. The war is Sierra Leone was over, but band members were still shell-shocked. Each had their own horrible story.

Rapper Black Nature was just a child during the war. "The fighting started," he remembers, "I saw a lot of things. Even my cousin, they shoot him in front of me. They amputated someone in front of me. And they burned our house. And my elder brother, they burned him in a room."

Black Nature lost both his parents in the fighting. Now the Refugee All Stars are like his family.

Back in 2006, they hardly felt like a band on the verge of success. The singer and band leader, Rueben Koroma, seemed elated just to have made it here. "The first thing that surprised me was the escalators," he said at the time. "They are so strange. When I saw them, to get in and get out was really hell of a job for me. The second thing was skyscrapers. Tall houses, just smiling in the skies."

Their infectious music and dramatic story won over Austin. After their packed festival showcase, they took their traditional instruments downtown and played on a street corner.

And then, just like an American dream, some industry heavyweights stopped to watch. And Rueben and the band went back to Sierra Leone with offers for both recording and publishing contracts.

In the two years since, the band's major label debut has hit the shelves, one of their songs was featured in the film, "Blood Diamond" and they've toured Asia, Europe and the United States.

Rueben says they're no longer struggling to put food on the table. They each even have a device that keeps food cold. "We are able to take care of our welfare," he says. "Everyone has a nice place to live. And we a generator and a freezer."

But here's the difference between the American celebrity lifestyle and a touring band from the third world. An American star might debate the limo with the Jacuzzi in back. The Refugee All Stars go home to friends and family that are destitute after a decade-long civil war. "It's a big responsibility," Black Nature says. "They expect that when you come here and get some money, that when go back you have to assist them. We are angels for the people in Sierra Leone because we've offered a lot of help."

Rueben keeps adding members to the band, because so many great musicians back home are out of work. In Sierra Leone, the poorest rely on family and friends to get by. So during their U.S. tour, one of Rueben's biggest shocks came while visiting a homeless shelter. "And they told me they were suffering," he explains. "It's a big surprise to me, because America is so developed economically to care for these people too."

There are three things the Refugee All Stars love about America.

Number one: Dating.

Black Nature lived in Portland between the last two tours. In Sierra Leone, arranged marriages are still common. "But here, when you start interacting, and doing things in common, you meet the family," he says. "You already have the confidence. If you come out and say, 'Let's get married,' then it's going to happen."

Number two: Weekends.

In Sierra Leone, people are too busy making ends meet to just relax on Saturday and Sunday. Rueben says that playing in a Freetown club is nothing like here. "We have clubs too in Africa," he says. "Only the people that go there are rich people. Because resources are limited there, you don't get the youths to go to club because they don't have money. Most of them go to the ghettos, a poor class type of entertainment, where they will drink palm wine and relax their minds."

Which brings us to number three: American crowds.

Rueben says the crowds here have spoiled them. "In the United States, you can see that the audience is very much excited," he says. "You see them shout, jump, make noise, dance with happiness. That's what we call motivation. So sometimes it makes us feel very happy to perform for them. It's like they get the music in them."

If things go according to Reuben's plan, the money they make here will help make music more accessible for young people in Sierra Leone. The Refugee All Stars have bought land in Freetown, and plan to build a music school there.

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