For the past 17 years the celebratory music of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars has contradicted the horrors they witnessed during their country’s civil war. The guitar-driven group came together in Guinean refugee camps in the late 1990s and has gone on to perform on international stages and collaborate with rock stars.
Now its members face a different plight. Since the spring, the Refugee All Stars have been living in American exile because of the Ebola epidemic.
“We want to keep the band alive and have decided to be here until either a vaccine, or anything, is found that can eradicate Ebola and we can go back,” bandleader and lead singer Ruben Koroma says from the All Stars’ current base in Providence, R.I.
When the Refugee All Stars began their tour of the United States in early April, Ebola had not yet become widespread in their homeland, Koroma says. “Around July, the media started talking about it and we were receiving calls from Sierra Leone about how dreadful it is.”
So the group began raising money to support for relief efforts (including a new Ebola-educational TV channel called WeOwnTV) and sending more money to their families in the country.
“Our financial responsibilities have increased,” Koroma says. “We have to send money to the people in our villages and keep them comfortable. Because most of the time, quarantined people can’t move one place to another, but they still need money. All of our schools are closed now. We have to raise money to pay a private teacher so our children can be back on their feet.”
While there has been panic about Ebola in this country, Koroma says the band has been treated kindly in New England, with a few exceptions.
“One time we went to an African restaurant in Providence to buy food,” Koroma says, “and we saw that stigma when the people there would run away from us.”
All of this comes at a time when the band’s music is thriving. They draw on popular West African idioms like gumbe and palm wine, which tend to be upbeat, small-band dance music with the audience joining in the chorus (the latter genre got its name from the beverage favored in Freetown bars). The All Stars also have a reggae flavor, reflecting cultural ties between former British colony Sierra Leone and English-speaking Caribbean islands.
Earlier this year, the group released Libation (Cumbancha), which marks a return to acoustic roots.
The group would like to continue touring across North America. Upcoming concerts and the All Stars’ contact information are on its website. Koroma said they have remained optimistic in the face of current hardships.
“As long as we are together and play music together, it gives us warmth, more confidence and hope that we will come out of this situation,” Koroma says. “We came out of the war, and so we know that we will prevail over Ebola.”