Refugee All Stars: Music Born of Strife Six men forced from their homes by violence in Sierra Leone have transformed their experience into a musical calling. The Refugee All Stars are now the subject of a feature-length documentary that follows their performances.

Refugee All Stars: Music Born of Strife

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Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war was overshadowed by conflicts in other parts of Africa. But the war, which lasted until 2002, forced hundreds of thousands of citizens into refugee camps in neighboring Guinea. A new documentary called "The Refugee All Stars" focuses on a singular group of those refugees. Musicians who met in the camps created a band and then performed in other refugee camps across Guinea.

(Soundbite of "Living Like a Refugee")

THE REFUGEE ALL-STARS: (Singing) You got to sleep on the top of (unintelligible). We ...(unintelligible). Oh, we are ...(unintelligible). Living like a refugee is not easy. It's still not easy living like a refugee, ooh, it's not easy. Oh, we are ...(unintelligible).

SIMON: "Living Like a Refugee." Still, life as a refugee was often better than staying in Sierra Leone. At one point, the rebels chopped off the hand of one of the musicians and the arm of another. Another musician was forced to murder his own child while the rebels stood by and watched. The band's songs expressed the pain and suffering of the refugees, but it's also clear throughout the film that music brings them joy. "The Refugee All Stars" recently won the Grand Jury prize for best documentary at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles. The director and producer of the film, Zach Niles, and the lead singer of the band, Reuben Koroma, join us from the studios of NPR West.

Gentlemen, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. REUBEN KOROMA (Lead Singer, The Refugee All Stars): Thank you.

Mr. ZACH NILES ("The Refugee All Stars"): Thanks for having us.

SIMON: Mr. Koroma, tell us, if you could, about how music enlivened your time in the refugee camp.

Mr. KOROMA: Well, music has done much for me because I lost my loved ones and most of my property. But when I went into the refugee camp, I started meditating and started playing music. So I seem to forget all my troubles and since music healed me, detraumatized me, I decided to form a group so that we can also heal the other people because we all have sickness.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: One of the songs we wanted to talk to you about was "Big Lesson."

Mr. KOROMA: Ah, yeah.

SIMON: This is a song that talks about forgiving, forgetting.

Mr. KOROMA: Yeah, because we've seen a big lesson. It was a big mistake for a brother to fight against his own brother.

(Soundbite of "Big Lesson")

THE REFUGEE ALL-STARS: (Singing) Oh, well, a big lesson that we have learned. We've been away too long from home. Oh, well, a big lesson that we have learned. ...(Unintelligible). Let us forgive and forget, you're my young man. Pick up your books and study...

It was a really big mistake. So now that we have realized that mistake, I think it's high time we all put our hands together and rebuild our country.

(Soundbite of "Big Lesson")

THE REFUGEE ALL-STARS: (Singing) Although we suffer, we suffer, we suffer. We suffer, ooh, yeah. Although we punish, we punish, we punish. We punish, ooh, yeah. Well, is this ever a circle back home? Yeah. Is this ever a circle back home? Is this ever a circle back home? Is this ever a circle back home? We get some love.

SIMON: Mr. Niles, what did you first notice about this group of musicians?

Mr. NILES: It just became so clear that this was something that they, you know, felt they had to do. And so I think that, combined with their bond, they really act as practically a family. I mean, a lot--many of them have lost family members and they kind of have come together. You know, the youngest guy in the group, Black Nature, he's a young rapper and, you know, he lost both his parents in the war. And the band really acted as his surrogate family and really brought him up and really encouraged his talents so...

SIMON: I guess I can't think of anyone better in the world to tell us, Mr. Koroma, what music can do for people who've suffered great loss and who live in often great danger and deprivation.

Mr. KOROMA: Music something people use to express their grief. I mean, if you have some pain and you hurt, and then you have the courage to sing, it seems to me the pain has to ease up, you know. And then for the people who are hearing us, some people smile, some people are happy, you know, because everybody was seriously traumatized. So at any time we play our music, you can see the people laughing, people just get joy because of that. So I think it's just medicine for people who are really--who have troubles in their mind. We give them the real medicine.

SIMON: Mr. Niles, tell us a little bit what it was like for you as an interested outsider to go around and see the kind of reaction that the band gets.

Mr. NILES: You know, you don't see it as food. I think there's a lot of aid organizations out there who help with food and medicine, all very necessary things, but there's also a healing of the heart that needs to happen and The Refugee All Stars--I mean, if you could see the expression on these people's faces when we would pull into the camp and they would start playing, I mean, it really was like something had been lifted. And I really--I remember there was an older man who was dancing to the music. He was dancing to one of Reuben's songs. And I remember somebody pulled me aside and said, `This man's been in a refugee camp for six years, and I've never seen him dance. I've never seen him smile.'

SIMON: What song was that? We could all stand to hear that one.

Mr. NILES: I would imagine that was "Soda Soap."

Mr. KOROMA: Yeah, it was "Soda Soap."

Mr. NILES: That's Reuben's big hit.

(Soundbite of "Soda Soap")

THE REFUGEE ALL-STARS: (Singing) Some people when they're being (unintelligible), I know they want sweet soda soap. Some people when they're upset, I know they want sweet soda soap. But ...(unintelligible) closer, it (unintelligible) craw, craw(ph).

Mr.NILES: There's actually a very interesting story behind that song. You want to explain the "Soda Soap" song?

Mr. KOROMA: Oh, yeah. Soda soap is a local made soap that people overlook. It ....(unintelligible) it is not good. But actually, when things were difficult in our country, you can see that all the rich people, everybody wash with soda soap because by then, ...(unintelligible) coming up with things so people have to adjust to the local-made soap. This to tell us that we should learn to expect what we can make ourselves than the things that are common in our country.

SIMON: What's your country like these days, Mr. Koroma?

Mr. KOROMA: Well, our country--actually, there's peace, there's security. I'm happy about it.

SIMON: You're back in Freetown now, right?

Mr. KOROMA: Yes, I've lived there. I went there back in 2004 and I've lived there up to now.

SIMON: What's it like to be back?

Mr. KOROMA: It's difficult actually because I will have a lot of problems in Sierra Leone, economic problems, job problems, electricity problems, but the most important thing that I cherish is the peace because the foundation of development is peace. So I think that's the beginning and I'm very hopeful that our people will change and then our country will one day be rebuild. I'm very hopeful.

SIMON: Are you and The Refugee All Stars still playing music?

Mr. KOROMA: We are still together. And in fact, we are living together in the same house. We are living as a family.

SIMON: Mr. Niles, why do you hope people see this film? What do you hope they come away with?

Mr. NILES: We deal with the war but what we really deal with are the people that are affected by the war and what people do to try and get through that trauma. And this power of music, this sort of universal thing that everybody throughout every corner of the world feels. Pulling out the humanity is what we really want to do and it all starts with the little steps so...

SIMON: Add a little beat and a little rhythm.

Mr. NILES: And a little rhythm, that's right, a little dance.

SIMON: Director and producer Zach Niles and singer Reuben Koroma from our studios at NPR West. Mr. Koroma, really nice talking to you, sir.

Mr. KOROMA: Thank you.

SIMON: And, Mr. Niles, also nice meeting you.

Mr. NILES: Thank you very much.

SIMON: "The Refugee All Stars" recently won the Grand Jury prize for best documentary at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. And the band, The Refugee All Stars, has just produced a CD, "Living Like a Refugee."

(Soundbite of "Living Like a Refugee")

THE REFUGEE ALL-STARS: (Rapping) You all ...(unintelligible) to all my family. ...(Unintelligible).

SIMON: You can find more music from The Refugee All Stars on our Web site, This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of "Living Like a Refugee")

THE REFUGEE ALL-STARS: (Rapping) ...(Unintelligible) shout out to you right away. ...(Unintelligible) right away ...(unintelligible). You know what I mean? ...(Unintelligible) Black Nature. You know what I'm saying? The Refugee All Stars band. ...(Unintelligible) goes to Mr. Reuben, it's all my elders, shout out goes to ...(unintelligible) and to ...(unintelligible).

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