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Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars sing to heal wounds of war

By Roberta Cucchiaro

GDYNIA Poland (Reuters) - It's a long way from the refugee camps of Africa to Poland's balmy Baltic coast, but for Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, the message is still the same.

"We want to make those people who went through horrible things forget about their problems and make them smile and laugh," says band leader Ruben Koroma.

Appearing at Poland's Globaltica World Cultures Festival last weekend, they delivered a typically vibrant, energetic and uplifting show.

The people of Gdynia - a Nordic city where metal and hard rock tend to be the music of choice - danced and sang to the funky African grooves, traditional Sierra Leonean beats, and old school reggae mixed with a flavor of New Orleans.

The All Stars are celebrating 10 years since the making of their first album "Living Like a Refugee". Their fourth and latest album, "Libation" is an offering for "the blessings that our music has brought us".

It has been a remarkable journey.

The band were formed in a Guinean refugee camp during Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war. "Living Like A Refugee" was recorded in tin-roofed shacks in a Freetown shantytown - a process depicted in a 2005 documentary film directed by Zach Niles and Banker White.

"The U.N. refugee agency helped us make our first album and there was also a Canadian NGO called CECI, donating speakers, mixers, a generator, microphones and two guitars to help us become more audible" Koroma told Reuters.

That set them on the path to worldwide exposure.

Producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos worked with them for their second album "Rise & Shine", released in 2010. Keyboardist Victor Axelrod, aka Ticklah, who previously worked with stars such as Amy Winehouse, produced their third album "Radio Salone", released in 2012.

But the war - which claimed 70,000 casualties and made 2.6 million people refugees - left a mark on Koroma's soul.

With his socially-conscious lyrics, also inspired by his father and by the late Bob Marley, Koroma hopes that his music can help uplift people and detraumatize them.

"The situation in Sierra Leone is very difficult. While the album gave me confidence to leave the refugee camps, many people are still there, living in bad conditions," he said.

In 2008, the Refugee All Stars returned to Guinea, where many Sierra Leoneans are still living in refugee camps, to perform and to try to "inspire the young to move on with their lives, away from the refugee camps".

Koroma's message is one of peace.

"We want peace," he sang out to the audience at Globaltica.

The concert was part of a tour taking the band to Glasgow in Scotland and Waterford in Ireland before moving on to Canada and the United States through September.

Festival art director Piotr Pucylo said the Refugee All Stars had been on top of his wish list.

"We are always trying to find artists with a story to tell," he said.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Angus MacSwan)

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