“Every instrument comes out of the mind of man,” said Reuben M. Koroma, band leader of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, “…like a heartbeat.” On their debut album, “Living Like a Refugee,” the band’s singers use their voices to imitate inhuman sounds, too — like goopy soap suds (“Soda Soap”) or a vibrating guitar string (“Living Like a Refugee”). In the title track and others, SLRAS incorporates the sound of hand-held shakers, chirping crickets, laughing children and snatches of conversation, not as background, but as elements representative of their sound itself. Over the phone, Reuben tells me how the group writes their music: first, he meditates and emerges with an original song; next, the whole band works through the instrumentation; then, the band members and outside observers “scrutinize and criticize” each song until it’s fit to be recorded.
That must be why their tracks glisten, clean beats swing and snap, guitar melodies drive up through rap, hip-hop and roots reggae, and dead-right lyrics speak the universal through their own particulars. The music is spare, but it never sounds processed or mechanical. It’s controlled, but always organic, cyclical, building on its surroundings. It’s driven by an internal momentum in the voices of its vocalists: a message not of silent peace, but of joyful peace, the kind that makes you want to dance because you’re alive. The music has the same allure as a natural river — it’s not perfectly symmetrical or balanced, but there is nothing superfluous or lacking in its design.
Despite this economy, SLRAS’ exuberant clarity leaves room for many surprises, including rap solos and staged mini-drama song introductions. In “Refugee Rolling,” Reuben sings, “We rolling for the better, we rolling for our safety … a rolling stone never stable in one place.” The lurching reggae beat sobers up to a steady thump as Black Nature, the group’s teenage rapper, interrupts with a growling solo.
The band members range in age from 40s to teens and come from different regions of Sierra Leone, but they have one thing in common: They formed SLRAS in Guinea as refugees of the gruesome civil war in Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002. As nine of the 12 members of the band finish a tour of the U.S., promoting their album, Reuben tells me he is thinking of the trip home to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
“In my home, I play music every day, I play music all the time,” he said.
But there was a decade, just before the turn of this century, when he and his bandmates could not play, or even live, in Freetown. Between 1991 and 2002, Sierra Leoneans fought and were killed in one of the most brutal civil wars in recent history. Armed groups fought over the country’s wealth of raw diamonds, eventually falling victim to the devastating violence of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). RUF recruited teenagers to commit atrocities such as their signature form of mass mutilation: lopping off civilians’ hands.
Alongside their hands, Sierra Leonean men, women and children lost their instruments for making music, food, money and clothing, for voting, and even for opening doors. Some say these mutilations were a perverted response to the president’s request that civilians join hands in peace.
About the RUF, Reuben says: “Most of them are living among us.” Their rehabilitation motto, “Drop arms and pick up your tools,” echoes in the uncannily sour irony of its first two words, and in the lyrics of the song “Big Lesson”: “Let us forgive and forget … mister workman, pick up your tools and work.”
Although they are the basis for many of SLRAS’ lyrics, these scarring experiences don’t prevent non-Sierra Leoneans from loving their music, as proven by their growing worldwide popularity. Reuben tells me that playing for American audiences is not very different from playing for Sierra Leonean audiences, except that Sierra Leoneans dance on stage and throw money on the performers they like.
“The idea behind music,” he said, “is that music is universal, it’s a language that anybody can understand.”