UNHCR staff rock to the rhythms of the Refugee All Stars

News Stories, 3 July 2007

© UNHCR/ L. Dobbs
Refugee All Stars vocalists Reuben and Grace get their UNHCR audience in the mood.

GENEVA, July 3 (UNHCR) The acclaimed Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars band paid their first visit to the Geneva headquarters of the UN refugee agency on Tuesday and had staff dancing in the atrium and galleries of the normally sombre building.

"The Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars are always happy to see people like you," the charismatic lead vocalist, Reuben Koroma, told dozens of UNHCR staff members who had forgone their lunch to hear a band that has been making waves around the world in the past two years.

"We are the survivors from the brutal war ... our aim is to exercise patience and strong courage with music to conquer all obstacles and reform our lives," he said, before the nine-piece band ripped into their opening number, "Weapon Conflict."

Their 50-minute set included a mix of reggae, rap, rock and West African folk music and featured some nifty dancing steps from Reuben and other members of the band, who were all dressed in the colourful gara, a traditional dyed shirt and trouser set. All songs they played, including the encore "Soda Soap," are featured on their debut album, "Living Like a Refugee."

The Refugee All Stars have a long and valuable relationship with UNHCR and acknowledged this several times on Tuesday. They played the concert for free as a belated part of World Refugee Day (June 20) celebrations, but collection boxes were sent round the audience with the proceeds going to towards UNHCR operations around the world.

Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller, welcoming the Refugees All Stars, looked forward to a continuing rich relationship and praised their music. "It's fresh, it's different and it's free of frontiers. It's a music of affirmation, it's a music of hope and it's a music of possibility and in all these respects it's very much apposite to the refugee experience."

Audience reaction in the atrium was very warm. "The Refugee All Stars are sensational! And more importantly, they give a voice to millions of refugees who are often forgotten and unheard," said one timid fan, who asked not to be named.

"They're quite amazing musicians," said Mark Manly of UNHCR's statelessness unit. "I found it quite inspiring that people who were living in refugee camps were able to somehow get something very, very positive out of it."

The members of the band lived in or near Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, before fleeing the country in the 1990s to escape the civil war. Reuben formed a group with other refugees in a camp in Guinea. UNHCR staff and a Canadian aid group helped them get musical instruments and exposure and they have never looked back.

The Refugee All Stars, who met High Commissioner António Guterres later Tuesday, have been making a big name for themselves and have played a punishing schedule of concerts that has taken them to around 100 countries.

They have played with top musicians, appeared on TV chat shows and had their music featured in the Leonardo di Caprio movie, "Blood Diamond." A documentary about the group has picked up awards around the globe.

© UNHCR/O.Delarue
The Refugee All Stars meet High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.

"I think music has made it for us," Reuben noted at Tuesday's concert. Their relationship with UNHCR remains strong and the band is an enthusiastic supporter of the ninemillion.org campaign, which aims to give refugee children greater access to education and sports programmes.

The Refugee All Stars will be playing on Wednesday evening at a music festival in Geneva's Parc La Grange. They are on a tour of Europe.

By Leo Dobbs in Geneva