Joel Dwek & Danny Wiser
Interview: Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Band members Ashade Pearce, Jahson Gbassay Bull, and Reuben M. Koroma, all formerly displaced by the Sierra Leonean Civil War of the nineties, joined us to reflect upon their inspirational journey
“Music is the language of the soul, it touches the minds of people, consoles them, educates, and entertains. In the camp, we use music to sensitise people about health issues, so there are more values of music than entertainment." - Reuben M. Koroma
Due to technical difficulties, band founder and lyricist Reuben M. Koroma was unable to join us on the call; his quotes are taken from an email exchange we conducted with him.
In 2005, a critically acclaimed film was released documenting the formation and early successes of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, a band formed in the Kalia and Sembakounya refugee camps in Guinea, housing displaced Sierra Leoneans fleeing the brutal 11-year-long civil war that ravaged the nation. Today, with the success of several world tours and four albums under their belt, the band members by no means hold the civil war as a distant memory, but rather something that informs what they have been doing to this day. We spoke to singer and guitarist Ashade Pearce, keyboardist and guitarist Jahson Gbassay Bull, and lead singer Reuben M. Koroma about their experiences with the band since the documentary premiered. Though Pearce and Bull were not in Kalia refugee camp, their experiences nonetheless serve to inform us about the chaos of Sierra Leone during the war, and thus are important touchstones for their work with the band.
At the moment, the band is split across the oceans, with Pearce living in the United States, while Bull and Koroma are living in Sierra Leone. The coronavirus pandemic has impacted their plans to create an album as they are unable to get together and play as a group to release a new record as they usually do, but the ensemble are no strangers to living with the threat of disease. When Ebola first struck in Sierra Leone, a major health crisis was declared, and that made the country an unappealing place to return to for the group, and thus they stayed in America where they were on tour to weather out the storm. Once the country was found to be Ebola-free, many of the band members returned, though Pearce decided to stay in New York, where he resides to this day. The two noted an irony that Pearce moved to the US to avoid a pandemic, but during the past year was living in America’s epicentre of Covid-19. Bull posited that the virus did not appear to be so widespread in Sierra Leone (at time of interview), and the world’s most circular nation is possibly more prepared for this pandemic because of Ebola.
Nonetheless, they seemed to be in good spirits and a close-knit group regardless of the distance that separates them. Whilst Bull did not feature in the film Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, and Pearce’s role in the film was somewhat different to that of bandleader Koroma, the shared success of it and the subsequent album is felt by all. According to Koroma, it was like a “miracle”, as directors Zach Niles and Banker White, as well musician Chris Valen, came to the refugee camps of Guinea on the hunt for a good story. According to Koroma, they met the band while they were rehearsing, and “they fell in love with our music”. Pearce also felt positively towards the film, recognising the level of promotion that the film gifted the band, enabling them to do an international tour, in which they managed to play in every state in the union.
Pearce’s reuniting with Koroma and the gang is a key part of the narrative of the documentary, however the film does not have the capacity within it to focus as much on Pearce’s story due to the focus on the refugee experience and natural limits on time and scope. We used our conversation with Bull and Pearce to discuss the intricate nuances and broad differences between their two experiences, as Bull was in another refugee camp not featured in the film, while Pearce was an internally displaced refugee. Though each band member has unique stories and faced many challenges, the essential truth of their experience is something they all share, and have been able to relay to people across the globe, to those who have endured similar circumstances, as well as to those who have not.
For those displaced in Guinea, it was not only distressing due to the cultural and linguistic differences between the Sierra Leonean and Guinean people, but also due to the poor conditions of the camps and the behaviour of Sierra Leonean rebels who had entered their temporary home, damaging the reputation of innocent refugees, causing unfair treatment on behalf of those who ran the camps. Nevertheless, Bull acknowledges the brighter side of life in the camps which afforded him to engage with his lifelong passion of music. This is something that Pearce was unfortunately not blessed with. “It was like hell. Believe you me. You see so many things, so many things. You see some of your friends die in front of your eyes. They kill people in front of your eyes. You see dead bodies lying down on the street, nobody is there to bury them. Then you see vultures come to eat the dead bodies, dogs were coming to eat.” Then, after a beat, with a deadpan tone worthy of Bill Murray, he said: “It was not good, really.”
Pearce continued by saying “my feeling is to be in the refugee camp as a musician is far better than to be in the country where there is war as a musician, because at least in the refugee camp you can play music there. There is no war there. The people that live there, they are at peace.” Bull endorsed Pearce’s perspective without denying the difficulties of life in the camp. However, Bull seemed to us to be a very chipper character who takes life as it comes. When we asked him about the difficulties of making music in the midst of war, he replied that “the inspiration is different where there are bombs and guns than where there is the sound of string and guitar and the drums. It is far different, because the people appreciate what you are doing for them.” Though he recognised that perhaps playing music in the thick of bloodshed may not be the best idea to garner a large audience – he says with a wry smile “people try to run away from your sweet melody and say ‘oh, man, let me save my life!’” – but nonetheless, the need for music remains steadfast in his eyes, and that afterward “where there are no guns and bombs, they will listen to your music.”
With a rather perverse nostalgia, Bull looks back to his time in the camp as an overall positive due to his role in de-traumatising his fellow refugees. He remembers children bringing placards and signs to listen to him playing the electric guitar with a friend of his, and to this day he feels heartened by the direct impact they were able to have on others psychologically. Koroma agrees with this sentiment, stating that “music has the ability of de-traumatising people, helping people get over grievances. The reaction of our audiences has always been good.” He told us that even in the desperate times of the refugee camps, some grateful audience members “offered [them] gifts and money to show how appreciative they were.”
The act of playing music has taken on a role of de-traumatisation for the band, not just for themselves but for the listeners too. The band’s view on the purpose of music, however, were far-reaching, recognising its myriad functions. “Music is not only to entertain people, spiritually it engulfs people and drives away all traumas in their brain,” Bull proffered. The spirituality of music is something that Bull sees as something universal, not just amongst humankind, but across all living beings. He spoke about an occurrence that happened to him when playing in a refugee camp, in which a snake fell down from the tree tops onto the performance area directly in front of him. Amidst the cries of his bandmembers, Bull did not run away from it or stop playing, and nor did the snake immediately strike out at him; rather, the snake “was dancing” and it “listened to the music and went back”. Bull ended by labelling music as “spiritually inclined.”
For Pearce, however, though he holds close the relationship between spirituality and music, the way in which he verbalises his understanding of the connection is twofold; on the one hand, he speaks of the spirit that overcomes him when playing music, so much so that it almost has an intoxicating effect. He articulated that “sometimes when you play, when the spirit is in you, you don’t see nobody, even if the hall is full of thousands of people. All you see in your eyes is the music… It is unexplainable, seriously.” In a different vein, he comprehends the matter from a religious perspective, speaking of music as an ancient, powerful force, and pointing to the Bible where King David was noted to be a musician, and with real certainty, believes that “there is music in heaven”.
Bull references the impact that music can have on one egg-laying beast – the snake – but it is in fact the song of another egg-laying animal, the bird, that Bull first fell in love with. “When I was a kid, I liked to listen to the bird and imitate what they are singing… [he enthusiastically imitates birds chirping], then I was like, this was a good melodies [sic]!” Though Bull plays guitar for the band, in his childhood his first love was singing, and he warmly recalls his salad days where he would sing as much as he could. As he got older, he started reinterpreting songs by Phil Collins and later, the king of reggae himself, Bob Marley. Koroma had a similar love of Western artists, and mentioned to us his love of singers and bands such as The Beatles, Madonna, and the aforementioned Marley, citing them as influences that have helped him develop his musical skills.
For Pearce, the route to musicianship was a different one. Growing up in a musical family, where one of his uncles was the pioneering Ebenezer Calendar, who is credited for popularising the genre of palm wine music in the 50s and 60s, and helped influence the then-nascent genres of soukous and highlife. His musical family also included another uncle, whose talent for wind instruments left the young and impressionable Pearce stunned. “[He] was a flutist, he could blow the flute like hell. He was playing with the harmonica, the mouth organ, as well he can play that as if he was the one that made it!” Though Pearce was surrounded by such illustrious musicians, they did not teach him to play instruments. Instead, like Bull, his first musical passion was singing, for which he had a tremendous talent and won several informal singing competitions as a youth. Pearce also taught himself how to play the guitar, and as such would follow the typical Sierra Leonean tradition of copywriting, in which many budding musicians copy (or cover) songs by other artists in order to learn how to play professionally.
Copywriting is just one example of how the music scene in Sierra Leone is somewhat distinct from many other nations. Though there are, and have been, many talented artists in Sierra Leone, the industry has had very little investment, and has never fully recovered the devastation of the civil war. Bull mentioned to us that there has been a shift from entertaining audiences with a live band, to entertaining them what is termed ‘programation’, or what we would call pre-recorded music. The use of drum machines and keyboards has increased, and Bull told us how he pleaded for this new wave of musicians to bring live musicians into the mix, to preserve some of the “Sierra Leone flavour inside”. This Sierra Leonean essence that Bull mentions is also something that Pearce is concerned about losing. This is not only due to the lack of live music, but also due to the influence of Nigerian musicians and music styles. However, he is unsure if that is because of a push towards more commercial styles, such as afrobeats, or a more general symptom of Nigerian cultural dominance across the continent, because he notes that many Sierra Leonean musicians do not make much money from album sales.
Despite reaching levels of international stardom, the band themselves are virtually anonymous in their homeland due to the unsustainable music model that exists, and instead make their money from touring internationally, as well as some small royalties they receive from the US and beyond. Pearce told us that people do not want to buy whole albums by bands, and instead they want mixtapes of different songs by different artists, and they will go to a third party to get that made. By doing so, the money goes to those that create the tape, and the artists involved get no royalties or recognition. Pearce says “we call it the second violation”, and that the successful musicians in Sierra Leone, like K-Man, will only make money from his albums on the day of his launch event. He did, however, mention that in Sierra Leone, they are known for one song called Soda Soap, which is featured on their first album, and that some Sierra Leoneans who have access to the internet are aware of the band, but unfortunately for them, that it is a small percentage of the population.
Nevertheless, despite the push in the recording studios of Freetown towards the programation style, the band still record together, and play live instruments in the studio. Although this has not been possible recently due to Covid, it is their intention to do so again. Koroma outlined for us the lyrical process for writing the songs. “We always observe and listen to the groans of the sufferings of the people and try to air out their grievances. In the process we write the lyrics and create a tune for them on our rehearsals, once we figure out the right sequences and a perfect instrumentation for a song, we do scratch recordings. Periodically we would keep rehearsing until we all satisfied.” He went to elaborate that “our music comes [from] the inspiration of a conscious spirit of awareness that compelled us to sing about things affecting the underprivileged. We know that this type of people would need to be comforted by upbeat and uplifting music.” Pearce agreed, saying that the band acknowledge the educational aspect of making music, and that “musicians are just like teachers and journalists, they reach the people everywhere about what is going on, about how things are going on in the country.”
In spite of Sierra Leone’s complex recent past, the band remain optimistic about its future. For Koroma, he believed that as long as corruption continues to be fought, the country will manage well. But above all, the peace the nation has recently enjoyed is crucial to its development. “I am optimistic that if only the peace we enjoy right now is continuously maintained, our country will climb to another level,” Koroma stated. Bull and Pearce concur with this viewpoint, maintaining an optimism for the future, partially due to the fact that they both believe that the country is sick of war. As Bull put it, “the optimism is there to say something will get better one day, someday, one day, even not in our generation, but our kids’ generation, when they will laugh [and] they will say ‘our fathers, our grandfathers they fought the last time, but we are enjoying’. It must happen.” Pearce also said that, among the people, “nobody is thinking about going to war in the country because of what has passed…. They don’t want to repeat it again.”
The reality of speaking to the band many years after the film’s release means that not only have there been major changes in their lives in the interim, but sadly, the passing of time has meant the much of the original line-up are no longer with us. Their memory arguably informs the band’s music more than anything else. Mohamed Bangura, who featured in the documentary died in 2010, and readers who have seen the film will be glad to know that he did manage to come back to Sierra Leone despite initial hesitation. Alongside Bangura, Koroma mentioned “Francis John Langba, Idrissa Mallam Bangura, and Mustapha Massaquoi of blessed memories.” He went on to say “we dedicated our albums to them. And we always remember them in our prayers. And we sometimes mentioned them during our performances.” Another one of the endearing characters of the film was the young rapper, Black Nature, who Pearce informed us now lives in New Mexico with his wife and children, where he still makes music with his own group. Bull joked that he is no longer a “borboh”, Krio for boy, and that he still keeps in regular contact with his band members.
Going forward, the band would like to record another album. Though they will all sing their own songs – a change from the usual set up – they will still sing about things that are close to their heart. Koroma divulged that the new album is likely to “talk about the hell people went through during [the] Covid-19 pandemic, [and] it will also include our experiences trying to integrate to a society we have left while touring the world.” However, perennial topics like the shared humanity of all refugees always remain close to their collective spirit as a band while writing music. This refugee solidarity still rings true after all these years. Bull declared that “one thing I believe in, you can leave your house, you leave your sister, your mum, your brother, your family and you go, you go meet the same people there because the way they treat you, you feel like ‘oh, that’s my brother I left there, this man is representing like my brother’… we are just one, it’s just environmental changes, but we are just all one, the same, because the same treatment you get there, the same treatment you get on the other side.”