Inspiring refugees: Life in Sierra Leone -- one of the poorest countries in the world -- was already bad, but it got worse in the 1990s, when it was torn apart by 10 years of horrific civil war. The conflict sent one-third of the population into ragtag refugee camps.
Among those refugees lived Reuben Koroma, a musician who realized music could do more than just entertain -- it could heal.
A year after leaving his home for a refuge camp in Guinea in 1997, Koroma got together with other musicians in the refugee camps and began to sing songs he wrote about their life there. While the lyrics are often dire, the music -- a mix of reggae and West African sounds, and an occasional bit of rap -- was generally upbeat; not surprising, since the music was made to lift the spirits of destitute people.
The group, now known as the Refugee All Stars of Sierra Leone, brings the mixed emotions of their songs to Manhattan's S.O.B.'s Tuesday. A documentary about the group runs before the concert.
In the title song, "Living Like a Refugee" (Anti), Koroma paints a bleak inventory of life in the camps: "You got to live in a tarpaulin house, which is so hot/You got to sleep on a tarpaulin mat, which is so cold." In another tune, he writes about homemade soda soap, which the refugees had rejected in their former lives, but were now forced to use.
The group fled again when Guineans attacked their camp. As the band moved from camp to camp, it added members -- and instruments. (It began with just voices, an acoustic guitar and a bit of percussion.) A Canadian aid group gave the band electric guitars and a beaten-up sound system.
In 2002, the performers met two American filmmakers, Zach Niles and Banker White. The duo realized the group's story needed to be told, so over three years they filmed and interviewed the members. The documentary, "The Refugee All Stars," became a hit at film festivals and led the band to a recording contract. They went from playing dusty refugee camps to tony concert halls.
Also in 2002, United Nations and British troops helped broker a ceasefire in Sierra Leone and Koroma, and the All Stars returned to their homes. Asked how he is doing, Koroma said he is "living with no fear."
While the group's music was created principally to give themselves and their fellow refugees hope, they continue to play. Their goal now is to let people around the world know about the horrible conditions in which refugees live, and that "war is not good for every human being," Koroma said.
Koroma said he would like to go to other areas where there are camps, such as the Darfur area of Sudan, to play and give the people hope. "I think I'm a model -- I overcame the refugee situation. I can give them courage."
"There's a lot of poverty," Koroma said about the current state of his homeland, but added "as long as there is peace, there is hope for development."
Friday, October 20, 2006 BY MARTY LIPP For the Star-Ledger