Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars - Radio Salone by Cumbancha
For a group that emerged from the horrors of the Sierra Leonean civil war, band leader Reuben Koroma and the Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars create music that is surprisingly life-affirming and optimistic. Perhaps that’s what has really made them so appealing to audiences worldwide as well as with cynical music critics. The music is simply irresistible and infectious and embraces all that is best in the human spirit. For their third record, the group decamped to Brooklyn to record out of the Dunham Studios with Victor Axelrod (founding member of stellar bands Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and the Easy Star All-Stars) as producer.
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars went for a naturalistic sound using analog recording with mid-‘70s mics and 16-track tape. That lent the process a feel of spontaneity and warmness ideal for these complex tunes, as well as evoking the golden era of Afrobeat. Radio Salone releases April 24th via Cumbancha. You can pre-order now via Amazon.
Frontman Reuben Koroma chats with PopMatters about the album’s creation, the documentary that brought the group world-wide exposure and working with Victor Axelrod…
Now being seven years removed from the documentary film that helped bring you into the international conversation, how do you feel looking back on it? Do you feel that there’s a greater dialogue?
Oh, we still can’t believe the course of our life. Like we say in an old song “we were in the garbage and now we are in the show glass.” It’s something like a dream even now for us. I do think there’s something like a dialogue that comes from the film and from this band being around the world like we are. For one, we helped the people in the West to know about the refugee situation and caused them to reflect in their minds about what it means to be that—a refugee with no state fleeing for your life. Refugees are not bad people, just people in very bad situations. No one chooses that for the life they want. And I think the Refugee All Stars can inspire people who are by nature humanitarians to help out refugees—maybe in Africa, but maybe in America too. And really I think it’s a positive thing for the world at large. Sierra Leone was known in the world because of the brutal war and that’s a bad thing, but our story shows that even if there are wars we still have something good to bring to the world. Everyone thinks only of war and corruption, disease etc. in that part of the world, but we are here to let them know that there are many good things there that the rest of the world could benefit from.
Your new album was recorded in New York, which must certainly be a different experience after recording Rise & Shine in New Orleans—what was it like recording in a metropolis like that?
Well, yes it was so different from New Orleans. I remember New Orleans in July felt like home. It felt like Africa. We always say to people that New Orleans reminds us of our home. But for the record (haha) we really appreciate being in New York. It is such a big city that we have never been able to take it all in, especially at the time of year that we were there. It was January and we were exposed to weather that was very, very unfriendly to us. We were not used to severe weather like that and we weren’t sure we would even survive. The snow is interesting for one day, maybe two but after that it was too much. Oh… I remember we would just sit in the studio all with our hands on one heater—with our cold caps (winter hats) pulled over our ears and nobody was happy when it was their turn to sing or play their part because it meant being away from the heater! Luckily we had friends from Sierra Leone that would bring us spicy food from home to keep us warm. I’d like to go back to NYC for some time, but next make it summertime, I beg you!
Tell us a little bit about how Victor Axelrod (Ticklah) became involved and what he brought to the recordings.
To be candid we didn’t know who Victor was before our first day of rehearsals in Brooklyn! It was the record label that made the suggestion. At first I was worried to be honest. I was just thinking “will this man give us the right thing that we need for our sound?” But in the middle of the work when I started to hear the rough recordings, I began to understand his skills and knew that this music would be very powerful. I think our experience with Victor was a big lesson. His reggae style is so natural. When we did our last album in New Orleans it was jazzy. We liked it because it was new, but with Victor the reggae sounds are so rootsy – it’s exactly the sounds that I had in my head when writing these songs. For the African songs he brought something new, but also traditional. I don’t really understand how he can feel the music so naturally, but he did. Victor and his team paid attention to everything and selected microphones and sounds and different instruments for every song—the perfect keyboard tones and even the drums. We never know about these things. When we started playing, we just used whatever equipment we could find. We would make snare drums from X-ray film and cymbals from hubcaps. But they really knew how to interpret our music.
What are you most looking forward to this year?
Well, the Refugee All Stars are a band that lives to play music for people. We are not really as comfortable in the studio as we are on stage. So we’re looking forward to our album launching and touring around the world. And trying to play good shows wherever we go and spread the positive message everywhere we go. You know the life of a musician is not easy so we are always praying for progress in the business.
Finally, looking back on your career thus far, what has been your biggest regret, and, conversely, what has been your proudest accomplishment?
My regret I’m afraid is that I once thought this life of international recognition meant a life of comfort. I squandered some resources and wish to this day that I had built a house for my family and myself. Is that what you mean by regret? I think about that so often. What I’m proud of is that the band has taken us to many places in the world. There is no group from our little country that has traveled more than us. And we, the poor people who have come from such humble backgrounds and who once were forced to flee from the barrels of guns, we are now somehow a positive symbol for our country—maybe even Africa because we represent something that is uplifting and spiritually positive. We did this only by doing what we love to do which is playing music.
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars - Radio Salone by Cumbancha