About 15 years ago, while violent conflict ripped the heart out of Sierra Leone, a group of six men found joy and hope by playing music together in the refugee camps they were stuck in. While being shuffled from camp to camp, the men brought consolation to each other and their countrymen with their upbeat music. The compelling story of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars was made into a documentary film in 2005, and it told their story to the world.
When the conflict ended, the Refugee All Stars returned to Freetown and recorded their first album, Living Like a Refugee, released in 2006. Since then, the members have recorded two more albums and proven that their musical talent overshadows the story of their incredible beginning.
Recently, the group released that third album, Radio Salone, and it’s their best disc yet. This summer, the All Stars are on a 43-date North American tour, with Canadian dates in Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa. We asked band leader Reuben Koroma a few questions about the new album.
Q: Your new album is so strong, it’s almost as though being former refugees is no longer the most important thing about you. Agree? Disagree?
A: I agree. The band was originally known because it was formed in a refuge situation. But the new album has created a difference. People will grow to know us for our good music instead of our history.
Q: What was it like recording this album in New York City in January?
A: It wasn't good for us because we are not used to that kind of weather. The weather was severe, in fact, Jahson [Gbassay Bull] was very sick and I was afraid for him. However, we really enjoyed the studio work. The engineer and the producer are very good people. Working with them was a very good experience.
Q: What was it like working with Ticklah as your producer?
A: Ticklah is a very creative man. When he proposed something, he asked our confirmation before going ahead. He was respectful of what the band wanted. He made the recording experience fun and made us laugh, which made the work lighter.
Q: How was working with Ticklah different than working with Steve Berlin?
A: Steve Berlin's style of working is more official and business-like. He works very hard, but he had less time to be among us socially. Ticklah is very sociable. He is like us and makes us feel as if we are all the same. Both of them are creative, and both asked the concerns of the band.
Q: How did recording the album with analog equipment affect your sound?
A: It made the sound very natural. With analog equipment, you have to do everything perfect from start to finish. It's not easy. It makes us work very hard to achieve a good recording. For example, a chorus can be recorded once digitally then reproduced multiple times. With analog recording, you cannot do that so it's more work for the musicians. Digital recording can make musicians lazy.
Q: The horn line on “Mother in Law” is so great. You recorded that song with NYC trombone players Aaron Johnson and Michael Wagner. Can you describe how that song came together?
A: We actually had the feel of the song, then we created our instrumentation. When we came to the studio, Victor [a.k.a. Ticklah] listened to the song and recommended that we should get Aaron and Michael to play on it. So we tried it and when we listened to the recording, it was good.
Q: Why is the album called Radio Salone?
A: The radio has been a very important source of our inspiration. It's through the radio that we have a chance to listen to different rhythms from around the world. We thought that it's pertinent to acknowledge the radio. And "Salone" is the Krio language name for Sierra Leone.
Q: Where did you get the awesome photo on the album cover of the weathered hands holding some kind of primitive-looking radio?
A: It's from Sierra Leone. In our country, people don't have money to buy records or DVDs, so the majority of people listen to the radio. It's the primary source of musical entertainment. The photo was taken by our documentary filmmaker, Zach Niles.
The Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars play the TD Toronto Jazz Festival on July 1, the RBC Royal Bank Ottawa Bluesfest on July 8, Festival Nuits d'Afrique in Montreal on July 10, and Festival d'été de Quebec on July 11.
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on Jun 27, 2012