Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars released their debut record Living Like a Refugee eight years ago. After playing music together in refugee camps while they were in exile, the group has grown into one of West Africa’s more recognizable international touring acts. Following their dub-infused 2012 release Radio Salone, the band reunited with their first producer Chris Velan to record their latest effort in Vermont. The result is a laid-back, mostly acoustic album that celebrates the band’s tenth anniversary. With it’s low-key approach Libation harks back to the days of playing scavenged instruments around the campfire.
Libation predominantly features elements of highlife, maringa and palm wine mixed with baskeda and gumbe – relatives of reggae and soukous. The band tackles issues of love, relationships, religion, poverty and social inequality throughout the record. Their positivity shines through every song they write and their dedication to lifting people up through their music is unwavering.
Unfortunately the mellow vibe causes Libation to suffer from a lack of hard-hitting tracks. The drop in energy is significant given the trend of their last two albums. There is nothing like Rise & Shine’s “Tamagbondorsu (The Rich Mock the Poor)” or Radio Salone’s “Mother in Law” on this record. While the group chose to go in a different direction this time around, the absence of these memorable, driving songs is noticeable.
While the acoustic tracks are well-constructed and the reggae songs are infectious, they have a similar sound and feel a bit soft at times, although there are a few exceptions. “Chaimra” opens the record with bright horns, electric guitar and a repeated chorus that addresses the constant gossiping surrounding the group. “Min Do Sin Tay” channels the familiar danceable Afropop blend the band is known for with a positive message of equality and African unity while “Manjalagi” is a terrific Afro-Latin groove which calls for government and public support of the poverty stricken. The most topical song is “Rich But Poor,” where bandleader Reuben Koroma sings about the irony of Sierra Leone’s financial struggles given their wealth of natural resources.
After a decade together, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars refuse to settle for the same old thing. The shift of tone on this album may please some listeners, but fans of the band’s riveting live repertoire will be disappointed. Libation honors the group’s survival through times of hardship and pays homage to the members they lost along the way. Ultimately it serves as a tribute to Mama Salone, the country which continues to inspire and motivate the band despite her hardships.
Originally published in RootsWorld Magazine.