Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars Bring Their Global Reggae/Afropop Vision to the Apollo

by delarue

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are one of this era’s most authentic feel-good stories. Emerging from hellish transit camps in the wake of widespread terror in their native land, they’ve become stars of the global jamband circuit. They’re a sensationally good roots reggae band. They also have an affinity for upbeat, hypnotic, jangly, guitar-driven West African flavored pop, if that style isn’t as interesting. And they have a new album, Libation, and another marathon tour in the works. They’ll be at the Apollo Theatre on April 5, with Senegalese griot trio Les Fréres Guissé opening at 8 PM, and charismatic Malian chanteuse Fatoumata Diawara also on the bill; $25 tix avail. through the World Music Institute are your best deal.

The first of the new album’s reggae tunes, Can’t Make Me Lonely reminds of early 70s Jamaican harmony groups like the Mighty Diamonds but with digital production. And it’s got the first of several absolutely delicious guitar solos, a simple, cascading soul progression played by Ashade Pearce, who next turns in a hauntingly lingering solo in the pensive minor-key sufferah’s anthem It’s So Sorry.

Rich but Poor, which contemplates poverty in a world rich in natural resources, gets a brisk ska beat and some otherworldly vocal harmonies that wouldn’t be out of place in a song by an early 70s art-rock band like Nektar. Producer Chris Velan adds all kinds of neat touches throughout the album, particularly some roller-rink organ on a couple of the pop tunes and  surreal clavinova on this track alongside Pearce’s intense, resonant lines in the snarling, politically-fueled Manjalagi (Leonian vernacular for “gimme”).

Likewise, Treat You Right contrasts smooth and smoky textures from organ and guitars, with a gorgeously spiraling, spiky Pearce solo as its centerpiece. And the band adds a jaunty calypso vibe to No Feel Bad O, whose message is “Don’t kill or screw your neighbor.” Most of the Afropop stuff follows a she-done-me-wrong theme that often jars with the blithe, happy chime of the music as it vamps along. And the opening track sends out a firm message: “Don’t dis us, we’re the All-Stars!”