SIERRA LEONE'S REFUGEE ALL STARS at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Wednesday (November 1), 8 pm. $18.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Even though singer/songwriter Reuben Koroma is now into his second tour of North America, he's still amazed at how far his Refugee All Stars have come since he formed the group some nine years ago in a Guinean refugee camp after fleeing civil-war-torn Sierra Leone with just the shirt on his back.
As he sings of his group's unlikely rise to international popularity in the song Garbage To The Showglass, from their uplifting debut, Living Like A Refugee (Anti/Epitaph), "They found us in the garbage and put us in a glass case."
"Coming from a very poor family in Sierra Leone, I never dreamed I would ever come to America. This kind of travel is only possible for the richest people in the country, the rich children of wealthy businessmen and politicians - not people like us.
"As we move from city to city, everything is so clean and orderly. All the roads are perfectly smooth and the lights are so beautiful - they shine 24 hours a day. And the houses here are so big and well built, too."
Karoma appreciates the value of a sturdy dwelling, having spent five years in various tarpaulin-roofed temporary shelters. It was while wandering around the Kalia camp that he recognized someone he'd seen in Freetown, guitarist Francis "Franco" Langba, formerly of Super Negros Bantous. The serendipitous encounter would change both their lives.
"He was strumming on this guitar, and I could hear he was struggling to sing Bob Marley's One Love. I knew the words, so I began to sing along, and he was astonished. 'Oh, man,' he smiled, 'you can really sing! I've been looking for someone just like you.'
"I told him I was a percussionist with a group called the Emperors and we were looking for someone to help me play some songs I'd been writing about life in the camp. He was very excited and said, 'Now that I've heard you, I know I've got my vocalist, and I'm ready to play whatever you like!'
"That's how the Refugee All Stars began."
What's immmediately striking about their music, documented on the Living Like A Refugee recording, is the upbeat swing of it all. Despite being inspired in part by the unspeakable atrocities of a bloody conflict and the hardships of day-to-day refugee camp life, the gently rolling tunes led by Langba's tasty S.E. Rogie-inspired licks over percolating hand percussion are never less than uplifting. That has a lot to do with Karoma's life-affirming compositions, which deal with troubling issues in a direct and poignant way.
"From the moment I arrived in the camps, I started writing these songs based on my bitter experiences. When somebody suffers, he is sure to gain some wisdom because of it. I wanted to try to express the truth of what we were all going through.
"I thought that if I could take all of our problems and put them in songs that we could play for people in the camps, maybe it could somehow minimize their trauma. Every time we would perform this music, the people would join in. It was a way of getting relief. They felt like somebody was finally speaking for them."
Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war has long since ended, and the release of the Living Like A Refugee album, along with the critically acclaimed documentary film The Refugee All Stars, by Zach Niles and Banker White, has made Karoma and crew into international celebrities. Yet they're finding that their new lives on the road, travelling by bus from one big city to another, isn't all that different from the camp life they described in the song Refugee Rolling: "Today you settle, tomorrow you pack."
"I have to be very thankful to the American filmmakers, because they introduced us to the world and put us on the international stage. The attention we got from the film has allowed us to make a living from our music and feed ourselves, buy homes and put our children in schools. So I would really like to thank them, and of course I would also like to thank everyone who bought a copy of our album and comes to see our concerts."