The third CD from this one-of-a-kind band kicks off with reverberating percussion, guitar and voices singing, “Let’s chant it down!” a rallying cry for the raucous and ranging set of songs to come. Formed in the refugee camps of Guinea where so many fled war-torn Sierra Leone in the late '90s and early 2000s, this band built a worldwide reputation as the subject of the 2006 documentary film Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. This film told the amazing story of how these musicians first raised the spirits of disheartened refugees in a series of camps, and then helped give camp residents the courage to venture back home once the war had ended. The film and the catchy songs that accompanied it proved irresistible, and boosted SLRAS to rapid global attention. Then came the question: what next?
The band’s 2010 release Rise and Shine, much of it recorded in New Orleans, demonstrated clearly that the band’s musicianship went well beyond its remarkable creation story. A musical and critical success, Rise and Shine showed that SLRAS’s blend of roots reggae, goombay percussion, and highlife/soukous-flavored West African party grooves had legs. It also showed the musicians’ ability to work with collaborators from very different backgrounds—like that fat New Orleans brass section—and also, that they had subject matter aplenty, both in addressing the problems Sierra Leone faces in rebuilding after civil war, and also issues affecting the larger world.
Radio Salone underscores all of that with the band’s strongest set of songs, and best-recorded album, yet. Salone means Sierra Leone in Krio, one of six languages on this album. The album has a classic sound, certainly aided by the vintage analog gear at Brookyn’s 16-track Dunham Studios—where the band recorded wearing heavy winter parkas during the spectacularly snowy January of 2010—and also, production and keyboard work from Victor Axelrod—a.k.a. Ticklah. But what really shines through here is the steadily improving chops and musical savvy of the band.
Surprisingly, considering where it was made, this is the band’s most African recording yet. It’s loaded with joyous Congo-tinged dance tracks, featuring the sharpest guitar work of SLRAS’s recording career. There’s the breathless Afrobeat vibe of “Man Muyu” a song, counter-intuitively, about patience. There are also four goombay percussion interludes, each one different, ranging from a spacey dub vibe, to carnival-like chanting, to a concluding salute to Muslims, “Salam Alaykum.”
Not until track five do we get to the band’s signature sunny take on reggae. On “Reggae Sounds the Message,” the group’s male chorus, backing Ruben Koroma here, has always echoed the early Wailers. But now the sound is rich and robust, rough edges polished not with studio trickery but years of experience, and resulting in a deeply satisfying vocal blend. Soaring organ break brings in gospel flare. Other reggae songs here each have distinctive character—from the dubby, biblical Burning Spear vibe of “Work it Brighter,” to the old school bounce of “Big Fat Dog,” and the buoyant uplift of “Remake the World Again,” with hints of the Marley classic “Stir it Up.”
A number of tracks channel classic soukous in the musical arrangements, although the vocals always bear the band’s now instantly recognizable vocal stamp—warm male harmonies and irresistibly folksy hooks. “Mother in Law” pulls back the tangling guitars to make way for punchy blasts of brass and a funky organ break. “Kali” unwinds from midtempo rumba into soaring seben. And “Yesu Gorbu (At Jesus’ Feet)” delivers call-and-response gospel boogie. So tune in Radio Salone, where there’s truly something for everyone.