Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Live From A D.C. Backyard

By Ally Schweitzer

The earliest iteration of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars started during Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war. Ruben Koroma and his wife Grace left a bloody, war-ravaged Freetown and headed east for Guinea, landing in a refugee camp near the border. Their stay at the camp dragged on through wartime, and people there needed a distraction—some reminder of life beyond the camp. So Koroma got together with musicians he’d known back home, and they began performing for their fellow refugees.

A couple of American filmmakers heard the band playing in Guinea’s Sembakounya Camp and got the idea to record Koroma’s ensemble. That eventually led to the 2005 documentary Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. The following year, Koroma and his bandmates released their debut album. (Listen to the band’s 2006 appearance on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show.)

D.C. filmmaker Brian Liu met the group seven or eight years ago while serving as a judge at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were in the house to perform. Afterward, they kept in touch—through even the deaths of the band’s bassist Idrissa “Mallam Bongo” Bangura and drummer Mustapha “Nico” Massaquoi.

“I always meet up with them when they’re in D.C. or we cross paths on tour,” Liu writes.

In August this year, the ensemble passed through D.C. again. “This time, they were playing at Black Cat, so I had a jerk chicken barbecue and smokeout for them in my backyard,” Liu writes, “and we shot an impromptu couple of songs.”

Liu shared one of those impromptu performances with Bandwidth. It’s a laid-back rendition of “Ghana Baby,” a sad but sprightly cut from the band’s 10th anniversary album, Libation. Watch the video, above.