Ten years ago, a group of musicians from Sierra Leone met in a Guinean refugee camp and started making music to brighten their long, hard days. Their names were unknown to the wider world, but within a year, they would be the focus of an award-winning documentary, release their first studio recording to critical acclaim, and become the world music equivalent of a household name.
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars’ origin story is heartwarming and well known, but it has been their music that has kept their name in the headlines for the past decade. The documentary and their debut album, Living Like a Refugee, put the group on the map, and subsequent releases have seen the Refugee All Stars branch out into new terrain, further defining their sound, and allowing them to collaborate with artists seemingly far outside their purview: They worked with Trombone Shorty on 2010’s Rise & Shine, and 2012’s Radio Salone was produced by Brooklyn’s Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod.
The All Stars’ latest release, Libation, is not a departure for the group, but who would have wanted that anyway? More than any of their previous works, Libation sees the band completely living up to the BBC’s proclamation that “their music emanates a life-affirming positivity.” It’s all good vibes, masterful performances and catchy, moving beats on this record, which sees the band reuniting with Montreal-based songwriter and producer Chris Velan, who produced the group’s debut. Even more exciting to some audiophiles, Libation was mixed by mixing engineer Iestyn Polson, famous for his work with David Bowie and Patti Smith.
It’s not surprising that the new album doesn’t sound like it was mixed by Bowie’s engineer and that it’s far from a facsimile of their earlier work with Velan. Rather, the surprise is that, after 10 years together, the band still sounds both like themselves and fresh. That kind of achievement is a real feat for any band, let alone one with such a compelling, but potentially pigeonholing, origin story. Their music is a lasting testament to the power of positivity, a virtue rapidly losing stock in the world of the 24-hour news cycle and an increasingly unstable geopolitical landscape. Songs like “No Feel Bad O” and “Treat You Right” prove that positivity has staying power, and so do the Refugee All Stars.
Preview the album here, and visit Cumbancha Records to purchase it, and if you’re in NYC, catch the All-Stars live with Malian songstress Fatoumata Diawara at the Apollo Theater on April 5.