Boston Globe, May 20, 2012
It has been 10 years since the civil war in Sierra Leone ended. For Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, however, the war and its effects are engraved not just in the memories of the band members, but in the group’s very name.
As listeners to their 2006 debut, “Living Like a Refugee,” or viewers of the 2005 documentary devoted to their story know, the group formed in refugee camps in Guinea in the late 1990s.
There, tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans had fled massacres and destruction in their country. Several band members themselves had been victims of ghastly atrocities.
Even after the war’s end in January 2002 and the restoration of civil peace that has endured to this day, it took several years before the band members were able to settle back in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city.
So it’s impossible to unspool war and displacement from the fabric of this band, as much as its exquisite guitar rhythms, vocal harmonies, and accents of reggae and other Caribbean flavors have made it tempting.
Still, life goes on, and so does the music. On their third album, “Radio Salone,” which came out last month, the All Stars, who visit Brighton Music Hall on June 24, have put together their most eclectic and best-produced program of music to date, with nary a reference to the conflict.
If anything, the album’s mix of classic sounds from across West Africa — palm wine, highlife, soukous, Afrobeat — alongside reggae, dub, and traditional Goombay drums and chants, harks back to the band members’ memories from before the war, and beyond that, to the country’s unique role in African history.
The album’s title is a clue to its concept, explains singer and bandleader Reuben Koroma, on the phone from Freetown.
“Radio was a great inspiration to our experience,” Koroma says. “Since we were kids, we listened to soukous, highlife, funk, and soul on the radio. So when we were making the record we wanted it to feel like this variety.”
The second part of the title, “Salone,” is the local contracted form of the country’s name. Koroma says the album portrays Sierra Leone and the hybrid culture it has had for over 200 years. In the late 18th and 19th centuries Freetown was a destination — giving the city its name — for repatriated slaves and others liberated from slavers intercepted on the high seas. They came from all over Africa, but became Sierra Leonean.
“Sierra Leone, especially Freetown, has a diversified culture,” Koroma says. Even the Goombay chants, which provide four powerful interludes on the album and feel like its most traditional moments, result from this trans-Atlantic to-and-fro.
“Goombay music was brought by returned slaves from the Caribbean,” Koroma says. “It’s similar in some ways to soca and calypso. We want people to hear all this is the root culture of Sierra Leone.”
“Radio Salone” possesses a modern, edgier touch as well. The opening song is pure dub, laden with electronic enhancements — one of the touches supplied by producer Victor Axelrod, with whom the All Stars made the album, in early 2011, in snow-blanketed Brooklyn.
Axelrod, who records reggae as Ticklah and has been part of Antibalas and the Dap-Kings, brought to the project impeccable production as well as the vintage analog equipment that those bands favor.
“His creativity really uplifted our recording,” Koroma says.
“Radio Salone” allies biblical and Muslim themes, party songs, social uplift messages, playful and serious themes, but it isn’t about war. It’s the strongest album yet from a band that was born in adversity but has written its own, new story.
Along the way, some members have been lost: original bassist Idrissa Mallam Bangura and guitarist Francis Langba died in 2009 and 2011, respectively. New members have joined the band.
Now, all but one of the current All Stars live in Freetown, where, Koroma says, conditions have improved even though the cost of living is high.
“Things are really expensive nowadays,” he says. “But there are development projects — road construction, electricity, health care. There is free treatment for pregnant women, and children under 5. It is helping tremendously.”
The recent guilty verdict by an international court against Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia accused of abetting the rebels who committed the worst atrocities, marks a milestone in consigning the war to memory.
“People are satisfied that justice is being done,” Koroma says. “It will help bring peace and confidence.”
They are no longer technically refugees — but the All Stars have no intention of changing their name to reflect their more settled status. The refugee experience is indelible, and breeds solidarity with others in the world who face the same plight.
“There are refugees everywhere in the world,” Koroma says. “We come from that history and we want to remain talking about that. As long as refugees are growing in number, we still have work to do.”