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Sierra Leone Refugees Find International Success in Music

Government corruption and control of the diamond industry fueled the civil war that erupted in Sierra Leone in 1991. By the end of the decade, fighting had spread throughout the African country and included battles in the capital, Freetown. Thousands fled to Guinea and other neighboring nations. But as VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports, the end of the civil war marked the beginning of success for "Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars."

There is a saying among the refugees of Sierra Leone. "Today you settle, tomorrow you pack," something Reuben Koroma knows all too well.

After fleeing rebel forces in Freetown in 1999, he lived in five different refugee camps in Guinea -- a place where adversity became the mother of musical invention. "Instead of thinking all the time of what has happened to us, I think we need to do something else, and we found music as a treatment for ourselves, passionately."

Other musicians found their way to Koroma in the camps. Some had suffered brutal amputations. Others were missing relatives. All had been forced from their homes. Their shared trauma became their inspiration and the foundation for Koroma's new band -- the Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars. "At any time we started to strum the guitar or sing, we could see that 50 people, 100 people would come around us. So we saw that music was a sort of therapy not only for us but for other people in the camp."

On the eve of a tour of several different refugee camps, a documentary film crew joined the All Stars and began to document its quest to record an album. "They said, 'Look guys, we want to make a documentary film about you guys, are you interested?' "

The documentary crew also followed the group on its return to post-war Sierra Leone. As part of a program sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the All Stars were encouraged to return to Freetown to prove that the security situation was stable.

Not only was it an opportunity for the group to record an album, but also to reconnect with friends and family that the musicians thought were dead. Among the happy reunions documented on camera is one with Ashade Pearce, Koroma's former bandmate. "I received a letter from Reuben, because I was -- I believed that Reuben was dead -- so the first day that I received a letter from Reuben, I said, 'Oh yes, my brother is still alive!'"

Four years after finding each other in the wake of civil war, they are very much alive, and together once again on stage.

But this time, the stage is not a refugee camp in Guinea or a club in Freetown.

They are headliners of the "Celebrate Brooklyn" music fest in New York City, just one stop on a worldwide tour this year. "We used to entertain people in clubs, like 200 or 300 people. Now we entertain thousands, so it's a big challenge for us."

The music tour follows the release of the documentary that chronicled the Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars' rise to stardom, as well as the album recorded in Freetown in 2003 and 2004 called "Living Like a Refugee." The band's music is now played on radio stations around the world.

They also have appeared on television, notably in the United States on the popular talk show program, the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Members of the group hope to use their fame to spread a message. Alhaji Jeffrey Kamara lost his entire family in the war. Now he is Koroma's adopted son, a rap vocalist who calls himself Black Nature. He intends to speak for others orphaned by war. "We are representing refugees around the world, and we are teaching them to forget about the war, but we are telling them that war is not the answer."

Reuben Koroma says that he hopes that the band's success will allow them to fund clinics, hospitals and a music school for children in Sierra Leone. "We are trying to develop Sierra Leone in our own little way."

Courtesy of Sodasoap Productions