They say every cloud has a silver lining, and if any good came out of the appalling civil war that devastated their country between 1991 and 2002, it must be Sierra Leoneâ€™s Refugee All Stars. Itâ€™s thought that around a third of the population fled as a result of the conflict, with many settling for years in refugee camps in neighboring Guinea, which is where this band had its genesis.
Arriving six years after their debut album, Living Like a Refugee; Rise & Shine finds the group moving from describing what life is like for a refugee to getting on with rebuilding their lives, and directing their gaze towards more general concerns, judging by their lyrics. Thus, “Global Threat” addresses climate change, disarmament and food shortages, while “Goat Smoke Pipe” is a sly allegory about post-war corruption and inequality in Sierra Leone. And there are love songs, such as “Muloma” and the lovely, skanking “Bend Down the Corner”.
As before, a loose-limbed, semi-acoustic take on roots reggae is their default setting, but the core eight-member group (not counting â€˜band motherâ€™ Sister Grace) has several talented songwriters aside from spokesman Reuben M Koroma, which makes for a pleasing array of other styles. “Gbrr Mani” toys with ragga and features a rap by the youthful Black Nature, while “Tamagbondorsu” is a Congolese-style soukous. “Dununya” has a distinctly Guinean feel, and local indigenous roots styles are showcased on “Bute Vange” and “Oruwiebie/Magazine Bobo”, the latter â€œa blend of â€˜secret societyâ€™ meeting song and spiritual incantationsâ€, powered by the rustic plunking of a kongoma (giant thumb piano).
Three tracks feature the welcome addition of The Bonerama Horns, and there are contrasting harmonica cameos by guest Chris Velan (Bend Down the Corner) and Mohammed Bangura (Oruwiebe/Magazine Bobo), who plays with one hand, having been â€˜amputatedâ€™ by thugs during the war.
Despite all the hellish things the groupâ€™s members have been through, their music emanates a life-affirming positivity. Producer Steve Berlin deftly mixes rough-and-ready studio and field recordings, punctuating the songs with atmospheric snippets of insect and frog calls, and thereâ€™s good sequencing and a variety of voices. It all adds up to a solidly engaging listen. ~ Jon Lusk