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Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars
Tuning In To West African Frequencies
It’s kind of tough to have to pan an album by a critically lauded band that formed in a refugee camp during Sierra Leone’s war and has spent most of its career supporting humanitarian causes. Thank goodness then that Radio Salone, the third album from Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars doesn’t give anyone a reason to do that.
This one is a bit of a concept album, and as such could be their most interesting release yet. It’s a loving tribute to the band’s many influences as gleaned from the radio and, by association, a tribute to Sierra Leone’s rich musical history and culture. Tuning their dials during the conflict and before, the members drank in reggae, soukous, soul, and West African genres. If the melody reminds you of calypso or salsa at some point it’s partly because those styles ultimately have African roots, but it’s also because they, in turn, made a pilgrimage home and found permanent lodging in Sierra Leone’s pop vocabulary.
The diversity of sounds they’ve assimilated is dizzying and makes Radio Salone a more urbane album than might be immediately apparent. The album is bracketed by goombay interludes and goombay is a Bahamian/Bermudan thing. There’s a lot blending here but then “Reggae Sounds the Message” and “Work It Brighter” are pure African reggae, as lively as heartfelt. Still, the strongest parts of the album are squarely Afrobeat. “Man Muyu” builds heat using rhythms like kindling until there is a full conflagration. Then they just let the thing burn. And the organ on “Mother in Law” would make Ray Manzarek weep.
Crisp production makes every beat and every shift in dynamics stand out like a star in the night sky, an invaluable asset on a relentlessly polyrhythmic album. Music based in complex live percussion needs crystalline translation, Victor Axelrod, who has produced for both Sharon Jones and Antibalas, saw to that, adding a psych flourish here and there but otherwise just allowing these gifted artists to be what they are.
Aside from scintillating stylistic explorations, Radio Salone is animated by the passionate messages the Refugee All Stars Are Known For. “Remake the World Again” takes reggae’s aching longing for Africa and transforms it into a native son’s longing for a better Africa. The lyrics don’t offer the listener much solace or hope, but if you tune in to the riddim, to the resilient guitar line, and listen closely the optimism is there to be heard.