After his father was murdered by rebels in 1997, Reuben Koroma fled civil war-torn Sierra Leone for the safety of a refugee camp in Guinea.
"I lived in the refugee camp for eight years," Koroma told me by phone last week. "The government of Guinea didn't trust us and wanted to control where we went."
Koroma then discovered that his friend and fellow musician, Francis (Franco) Lamgba, had also fled and was living in the same camp. They united to form a musical group that became Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars.
The band performs on the World Music Festival Stage at the Willy Street Fair this Saturday, Sept. 25.
Koroma says the experience of living in a refugee camp influenced the direction of his songwriting. "It changed our music and our lyrics," he says. "Musicians are just like journalists. We think about the things we experience. We need to express ourselves and the status that we find ourselves in. When we were confined in the camp, our music reflected that."
Since the documentary Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars was released in 2005, the turn of events in Koroma's life has been dramatic. He's been transformed from a camp refugee to a musician performing on stages across the world.
"When the documentary was made and we began to get popular outside of Sierra Leone, it was like a miracle to us," he says. "It was like something that happened by the grace of God."
This year, the Refugee All Stars released their second album, Rise and Shine. Produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, the album is the sound of resilience. The 14 tracks brim with joyous world beats and reggae that speak to suffering ("The Rich Mock the Poor") but emphasize endurance ("Let Us Be United").
"The title, Rise and Shine, means something that has hope," says Koroma. "When people got to know about our story - where we were and where we are now - they see hope. The album is meant to give hope to the hopeless."