Who knew that being a refugee could be so much fun? In what may be the understatement of the century, Reuben Koroma, lead vocalist of the Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, said at the start of one of his songs, ‘Living like a refugee, it’s not easy.’ But you would never guess it from watching this band play.
The All Stars are actual refugees from Sierra Leone, a West African country that, like so many others, has been ravaged by war and violence. Koroma and his wife Grace were forced to leave the capital city of Freetown during a bloody rebel attack in the late 1990s. They used music as a source of hope for themselves and others during their stay in camps and picked up other musicians along the way. Vocalist and percussionist Abdul Rahim Kamara witnessed the execution of his father before having his arm cut off. Rapper and vocalist Black Nature was tortured and orphaned.
Now, as Korona went on to explain at the start of the song ‘Living Like A Refugee,’ ‘You see, I just took all the problems, the suffering of the people and I’m making some peace.’ Irvine’s Barclay Theatre may seem like a strange place for this reggae-infused African folk band. After all, how can the reggae fans get stoned in an indoor theater where they can’t even take alcoholic drinks past the front lobby? For that matter, the crowd wasn’t what you’d expect at a reggae show either. ‘Are we in the right place?’ one UC Irvine student asked as she approached the ticket booth and noticed the dressed up middle-aged folks hanging around, laughing and sipping on glasses of wine.
But the All Stars put on a show that not even Irvine’s most refined could stay in their seats for. Over the course of a set lasting for more than an hour and a half, the band proved exceptionally lively. Rhythm guitar and keyboards set the reggae intonations. Multiple percussions, including a full drum set and several hand drums, provided a constant upbeat rhythm. All band members were vocalists to some extent, and songs would often stray from harmonized choruses to a guttural, fast-paced rap and back again in a tight three or four-minute package. Ashade Pearce, a man whose dreadlocks looked older than most undergraduates at UCI, fleshed out the songs even more with his incessant lead guitar riffs.
The band was met with continuous clapping and whistling, and the entire audience even met the band’s request to get out of their seats and dance toward the end of the set.
The All Stars are currently touring extensively in the United States. They previously performed on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ and music festivals around the world, including Bonnaroo. They were interviewed by CNN and NPR and were made internationally famous in the 2005 documentary ‘Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.’ While many Anteaters may have missed them this time around, the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars are more than worth looking out for in the future.