Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars has just released its third album, Radio Salone. Since forming in 2002, the band has toured the world, has fled from Freetown to live in West African refugee camps in Conakry and, now, have been the subject of an award winning documentary. Film-makers Zach Niles and Baker White followed the Refugee Allstars for three years as band members Reuben M. Koroma, Black Nature, Mohammed Bangura, Francis John Langba, Ashade Pearce, Jah Son Bull and Makengo Kamara moved form camp to camp, shunted by the violence and unrest that has plagued the region. Through all of this change, their goals remain the same: educate and enlighten through the unified power of music. We recently had the opportunity to chat with Black Nature about the new album, the presence of radio in Africa and the tneth anniversary of the end of the brutal 11-year Sierra Leone Civil War.
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars – Mother In Law by Cumbancha
“Salone” translates to “Sierra Leone” in Krio, translating the album title literally to “Sierra Leone Radio.” As Krio is spoken by the vast majority of Sierra Leone, what is the immediate message that the album carries?
A message of hope, peace, inspiration. We called it Radio Salone because Sierra Leone is a country that has been through a civil war and the only way people were hearing about it was through radio. At that time, communication was cut off, so radio was the only means of communication and receiving information. We relied on the radio. People around the country were hearing about the conditions through radio. So the new album is a way to hear about hope and peace.
How does the record celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the end of the Sierra Leone Civil War?
Releasing the alum at the same time the country itself is celebrating creates a very positive vibe. The band is like an ambassador for the country. Spreading the memories—both positive and negative—and celebrating the independence.
What are your memories of radio from when you were a refugee? What role does it play in Sierra Leone?
Radio was the only way that people knew about what was going on in the world. In a refugee camp, radio was very important. At that point, we were only communicating through radios and I was curious to know what was going on. I remember the rebel leaders we were all communicating with eachother through radios. I would hear about some of the horrible things going on in another part of the country at the same time. Other times it gave me hope to know people were living peacefully, steadily moving back into their homes. Overall, in the refugee camp, radio served as a good way for people to listen to music and just chill and forget about the moment.
Why did you decide to record your new album in Brooklyn?
When we were thinking about recording our third album, there was a lot of talk between us and our management, the people behind the machine. We wanted a change of pace, so we recorded with analog for third album. It sounded very different from the second album. [It] was produced by Steve Berlin, [of] Los Lobos. The guy had a great, unique sound. We sound different now in comparison. Now we have more of an old school rootsy feel like vinyl. It is the sound of more traditional music.
How does that differ from your experience in New Orleans with Cumbancha?
Recording in Brooklyn was more uncomfortable and really challenging for several reasons. We were all wearing like six jackets at once because it was so cold outside. We were also tired, having come off the road for a stretch of several months. The conditions in New Orleans reminded us of being in Sierra Leone; the food, music, people, were all very similar. Even the environmental conditions due to the natural disaster. Walking around reminded us of our own country.
How did you end up working with Victor Axelrod? What did he contribute to the recording process?
I met him when we came to New York. He is a very talented young man. Humble. He listens, is down to earth. When working with a producer we have to be a team. He has to listen to our ideas and we have to listen to his. That made the process go quickly and became really unique. We would go to the studio very early in the morning. having been on the road for six or seven months, we just wanted to relax. He gave us a lot of motivation and courage. We all did it, Axelrod and us together. We all made this happen.
Since you’ve been touring the world and recording in the United States, do you ever fear that your music has become less connected to your homeland?
I sometimes consider myself a citizen of the world because I left my country at a very early age I have been in a refugee camp, been around the world touring. That doesn’t mean I forget where I’m from. I miss the culture, people, food and language. At the same time, I try to make that the present that I live in universal and try to represent my country. People will learn from my culture and I learn form theirs. Home is always in my mind, I think about it all the time. I always feel connected to my roots, culture and people.