Formed in 1997 with a meagre inventory of donated musical equipment in a refugee camp in Guinea, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have been a heart-warming story from the beginning. The band started as a way to deliver a sliver of hope to refugees in West Africa but quickly found its way to fame, including opening for Aerosmith and earning praise from some of the biggest names in music.
The title, ‘Salone’, means ‘Sierra Leone’ in their native language of Krio, one of the five languages they sing on the album. Delving ever so slightly into the world of the concept album, Radio Salone celebrates all that is wonderful about radio and immerses itself into the sounds of Sierra Leone’s airwaves in the 1970s.
Before the war, Sierra Leonean radio served as a means of musical exposure to the world and its various genres including American soul, Congolese soukous and reggae. During the conflict, it took on a new purpose and meaning – offering an escape from the horrors of war and refugee camps. Radio Salone perfectly captures that atmosphere. The tracks travel through a range of genres including old school reggae, classic soukous and a tinge of gospel each carrying the signature SLRAS sunny disposition.
Mid-70s era microphones, 16-track tapes and limited takes helped create the retro sound. The album relies more on the serendipitous nuances and mood than perfection of sound, which is what makes this album a thing of beauty.
Unlike their last album, which was recorded in New Orleans, Radio Salone was recorded in New York and produced by Victor Axelrod aka Ticklah (known for his work with Amy Winehouse and Easy Star All Stars among others). It follows as no surprise then that this is their most mature and refined sound, despite the throw-back character.
The album opens with the short rallying cry ‘Chant it Out’, full of subtle reverb and distortion. From there, SLRAS take the listener through a dizzying variety of sounds and grooves expertly tied together with several ‘Goombay Interludes’. Goombay refers to a form Bahamian music that revolves around the use of, you guessed it, a goombay drum. These interludes, the best of which is ‘Goombay Interlude – Rain Come Sun Come’, offer a welcome touch of continuity that binds the rest of the tracks together into a comprehensive album.
Sprinkled among the interludes is pure reggae (‘Reggae Sounds the Message’ and ‘Work It Brighter’), Afrobeat (‘Man Muyu’) and just about everything in-between. The track ‘Mother In Law’ features killer horns and organ that makes it a contender for the best track on the album. I have to reserve that honour, however, for ‘Big Fat Dog’ – it has groove and an irresistible hook. I dare anyone to listen to it without bobbing their head to the beat and signing along by the end.
Radio Salone is surely as good as it gets, but who knows, maybe they’ll prove us wrong again with an even better album to come.
This review originally appeared on Musika.