The band, which came together at a refugee camp in Guinea after escaping the horrific, decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone, plays testament to the healing power of music with an exuberant stage show that's made the group a hit at South by Southwest, Bonnaroo and Japan's Fuji Rock Festival.
The musicians' big break came when San Francisco Bay Area filmmakers Banker White and Zach Niles found them rehearsing in a refugee camp in 2002. White and Niles turned the band's story into a documentary that was supported by a number of celebrity backers and has won more than half a dozen film festival awards around the world this year.
When the filmmakers wanted to find the group a record deal, they enlisted the help of The Rosebud Agency's Mike Kappus, who eventually took on booking and management duties as well.
The ensemble's first visit to the U.S. came in March, when Kappus squeezed in two last-minute concerts in conjunction with the film's screening at SXSW. While at the conference, the band decided to do some busking and set up an impromptu vocals-and-percussion performance on the street, quickly drawing a crowd.
When Kappus ran into a friend in the audience, he told him the band's story. The friend, a lawyer, happened to be standing with a Warner/Chappell publishing rep.
"He listened intently and we traded cards," Kappus told Pollstar. "And one hour later - it was like 1 o'clock in the morning - I got back to my hotel and we had an offer for a publishing deal which has grown into a six-figure deal for their first album alone.
"This one spontaneous deal has dramatically changed a number of lives."
The band plans to use the money to build living quarters for its members, who now number close to a dozen.
"Their story of being refugees and what's in the documentary is a really powerful story and people are curious to come out and see them," Kappus said. "But if the story didn't exist at all, what they do on stage is such an upbeat and fun show that they're going to build an audience wherever they go."
The story is a harrowing one: Band leader Reuben M. Koroma witnessed the murders of his parents but managed to flee with his wife, Efuah Grace, who sings in the band.
The group also includes Black Nature, a teenaged rapper who was orphaned in the war and later tortured as a suspected rebel; Franco Langba (rhythm guitar/kongroma/vocals), who still does not know the fate of his family; Arahim Kamara (vocals/percussion), who lost his arm and his father to the war; and Mohamed Bangura (vocals/harmonica/percussion), who was maimed and forced at gunpoint to kill his own child after soldiers shot his parents.
The documentary chronicles the band's journey back to the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown, where the members reunited with lead guitarist/vocalist Ashade Pearce, an old friend who led a group called The Emperors. The two bands decided to combine, and together fulfilled their dream of recording a full-length album in a local professional studio.
The still-traumatized Bangura was the lone member of the band to remain in Guinea and did not tour this summer with the group. When Pollstar spoke with Koroma, he was making plans to visit Bangura and attempt to convince him to come along for this fall's tour.
"I really want to come [back] with him because I miss him a lot," Koroma said. "He's a powerful traditional singer and an expert professional, especially on harmonica."
Travel plans are also uncertain for Langba and Grace, but the group's upcoming concerts will feature all or most of the eight-person lineup that toured festivals and several U.S. theatres this summer.
Highlights of the band's first tour included a headlining gig at New York City's Central Park SummerStage, where thousands of fans braved pouring rain for the group's performance and a screening of the film.
"It's amazing that we are able to play for tens of thousands of people and it's also very amazing to us the kind of reception that we got when we toured," Koroma said. "The people really received us as diplomats, and we are really, really grateful to all the people we played for.
"They appreciate our music; they dance to our music," he continued. "And then after the performance, they sat down and began giving us compliments, saying 'Congratulations,' 'Thank you,' 'Your music is fun.'"
"I honestly don't know that I've ever seen an audience so jubilant," Kappus said of the group's Fuji Rock appearance. "They just bring joy from what they're doing. I'm not sure how many people in that audience really knew that much about their story. There's a great power in what they're doing on stage."
The debut album from Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, Living Like A Refugee, is due out on the Anti- label September 26th, and the band will launch a full North American tour in October. Kappus is working to set up a European trip for later this year.
Based on this summer's gigs, Kappus is expecting major success.
"The fact that there was no album in release, it's just amazing that we were able to do a seven-week tour - an eight-piece band from Africa with no album - and actually make money," he said. "People really get excited with the group. It's a great experience."