Formed over a decade ago, the Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have had one of the more incredible and inspiring stories you’ll likely hear of any act in recent memory. Starting out as refugees in exile playing together in the squalor and desperation of refugee camps, and recording their first album in a studio in Freetown where electric shocks and power outages were common, the band has toured the world as international superstars with a sound that has become more complex and nuanced.
However, on the band’s forthcoming effort, Libation, the band returns to the intimate “sitting around a campfire” sound of their first album as the band takes on a much more acoustic approach – playing with vintage guitars and hand percussion, and the like. In some way, it mimics the band’s earliest days in which they had to make do with whatever instruments they could find, in whatever condition they were in or to make instruments by hand, without amplification, electronics or other modern studio techniques. Additionally, the album is influenced from the sounds of their homeland with songs drawing heavily from highlife, maringa, palm wine, baskeda and gumbe — all of which the band listened to and loved in their youth, and are sadly not heard as much back home.
“Gbaenyama,” the first single from the new effort, encourages young people to embrace a more spiritual life. It’s a gorgeous song with deceptively simple arrangements – gorgeous guitars, subtly complex percussion just under the surface, and harmonized vocals. It’s a track that’s infectiously uplifting; if you can’t manage to smile a bit when you hear this, you have a cold and jaded heart. (Interestingly and strangely, the opening sequence of guitar chords managed to remind me of the Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers,” a song that I hadn’t thought about in several years.)