Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have risen like a phoenix out of the ashes of war and enflamed the passions of fans across the globe with their uplifting songs of hope, faith and joy. The band is a potent example of the redeeming power of music and the ability of the human spirit to persevere through unimaginable hardship and emerge with optimism intact. From their humble beginnings in West African refugee camps, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have performed on some of the world’s most prestigious stages.
Throughout the 1990s, the West African country of Sierra Leone was wracked with a bloody, horrifying war that forced millions to flee their homes. The musicians that would eventually form Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are all originally from Freetown. They were forced to leave the city at various times after violent rebel attacks. Most of those that left the country made their way into neighbouring Guinea, some ending up in refugee camps and others struggling to fend for themselves in Conakry.
Ruben Koroma and his wife Grace had left Sierra Leone in 1997 and found themselves in the Kalia refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone. When it became clear they would not be heading back to their homeland anytime soon, they joined up with guitarist Francis John Langba, and bassist Idrissa Bangura, whom they had known before the war, to entertain their fellow refugees. After a Canadian relief agency donated two beat up electric guitars, a single microphone and a meager sound system, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were born.
American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White encountered the band in the Sembakounya Camp, and were so inspired by their story they ended up following them for three years as they moved from camp to camp, bringing much needed joy to fellow refugees with their heartfelt performances. Eventually, the war in Sierra Leone came to an end, and over time the All Stars returned to Freetown, where they met other returning musicians who joined the band’s rotating membership. It was there in the tin-roofed shacks of Freetown’s ghettos that Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars recorded the tracks that ended up, along with unplugged recordings made in the refugee camps, being the basis for their debut album, Living Like a Refugee, which was released on the label Anti in 2006.
A film that documented this moving saga, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, was a critical success, and introduced the world to the personalities and dramatic stories behind the band, not to mention their instantly appealing music. The movie, album and eventual U.S. tours helped expand their following, and soon the band found itself playing in front of enraptured audiences of tens of thousands at New York’s Central Park SummerStage, Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival and the revered Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. They appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, contributed a song to the Blood Diamond film soundtrack, participated in the U2.
For their second album, the members of the All Stars knew that they needed to prove to the world that they had the talent to produce an album that would rise above their unique story and stand on its own musical merits. After recording some songs and demos in Sierra Leone, the group went to New Orleans, Louisiana to work on the album with veteran producer Steve Berlin, a member of Los Lobos. Rise & Shine brought the band new accolades and earned 2010 Album of the Year on the prestigious World Music Charts Europe.
In January 2011, the All Stars returned to the studio, this time in snow-covered Brooklyn, NY. Their producer for their third studio album was producer and keyboardist Victor Axelrod, aka Ticklah. He added a whole new dimension to the All Stars sound and helped them reveal how years of touring have honed their skills.
The All Stars took advantage of the vintage analog gear at Daptone affiliate Dunham Studios to record an album inspired by the retro sounds they heard blasting out of radios in their younger years. Old school reggae, funky African grooves and deep tribal chants form the musical underpinning of Radio Salone, which was released last April.
The album is called Radio “Salone” – meaning “Sierra Leone” in Krio – and the band sings in six local languages. The radio theme appears throughout the album artwork and reflects the impact that radio has long had on the band. In the pre-TV and Internet days, radio served as a connection to the rest of Africa and the globe. Long before the war, members of the band were exposed to vintage reggae, Congolese soukouss, American soul, and much more. During the war, radio provided an essential escape from the harsh reality of the refugee camps, bringing news and music to people desperate for a link to the world beyond the camps.
Radio Salone is not the best album from Africa this year. The band is still leaning too hard on their past. Indeed, they helped uplift the souls of many people in the camps, and showed the kind of resilience great people are made of. Yet, their music does not automatically benefit from the personal history. This album is anyway worth listening to. Some of the songs do have a punch, and also because Sierra Leone music is hard come by and this band is the only one marketed in Europe, so far.