All of group's members lived in or around Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital city, prior to their individual departures in the late 1990's. Throughout most of 1990s, Freetown had remained relatively safe from the rebel war that had turned much of their country into a bloody battlefield. But near the turn of the 21st century, rebels attacked the city and forced a panicked mass exodus to neighboring countries. Although group leader Reuben M. Koroma and future bandmates Franco (Francis Langba) and Arahim (Abdul Rahim Kamara) knew each other as professional musicians from different bands in Freetown and even occasionally played together in common musical circles, it wasn't until they reconnected in Kalia Refugee Camp in Guinea that the roots of the group took shape.—Courtesy Calabash Music
When Reuben and his wife Grace located Franco and began making music for their fellow refugees, their efforts were short lived. Safety in the Kalia camp disintegrated when it came under attack from the Guinean army and citizenry who believed the camps were being used as staging grounds for rebel attacks against Guinea. With refugee camps now war zones, the initial band members - alongside thousands of fellow refugees—were evacuated from the area and moved to Sembakounya Refugee Camp. Set deep in the remote Guinean countryside, it was here that Reuben and Franco—thanks to a Canadian refugee aid organization—were able to acquire the rusted-out sound system and beat up electric guitars that helped officially launch the group.
At Sembakounya Camp, American documentary filmmakers Banker White and Zach Niles encountered The Refugee All Stars (which by now also included Black Nature, Arahim and Mohammed Bangura) and their music. The first time filmmakers followed the band for three years as they moved from camp to camp and eventually returned home to face their war torn country and reunite with family, friends and former band-mates many of whom they had believed did not survive the violence. It was during this trip that the current line-up of the band was cemented and their life long dream of recording in a studio was realized.
Backed by the likes of Keith Richards, Sir Paul McCartney, Ice Cube, Angelina Jolie and Steve Bing, the resulting documentary film, The Refugee All Stars, won a series of major awards on the festival circuit. The band followed up this success with their first international tour in 2006, which took them to the U.S. and Japan. On the heels of this tour, the group released their first album, Living Like A Refugee, featuring original compositions written during their years in exile, field recordings from the refugee camps in Guinea as well as studio efforts at Sam Jones' Island Studios in Freetown.