Music News & Reviews

Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars: Joy survives hardship

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars formed in a refugee camp in neighboring Guinea.
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars formed in a refugee camp in neighboring Guinea.

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars

7 p.m. Sept. 19 at Eastern Kentucky University's Brock Auditorium in Richmond. Free. (859) 622-7356.

It remains a testament to the human spirit that some of the world's most joyous music is born of its greatest hardships.

Six years ago, a team of esteemed musicians that included singer-songwriter Reuben Koroma fled from their African homeland of Sierra Leone. The West African nation was ravaged by civil war and poverty, prompting Koroma and his compatriots to flee to nearby Guinea.

At the height of their displacement, the musicians banded together, creating music that echoed not only their fertile West African heritage but vibrant reggae influences. Enter American and Canadian film crews that, through a documentary, introduced the world to the group that became known as Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars. A fine debut recording, Living Like a Refugee, followed in 2006.

The group's second and newest album, Rise and Shine, brings Koroma and the All Stars back to a calmer Sierra Leone — specifically, its capital city, Freetown. It also bumps up the reggae inspiration and throws in some decidedly American touches, namely sessions cut in New Orleans. The entire recording was produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos.

Admittedly, several themes on Rise and Shine reflect directly and indirectly on Sierra Leone's troubled past, be it Tamagbondorsu (The Rich Mock the Poor), Gbrr Mani (Trouble) or even the worries of global warming ignited in the wake of warfare on Global Threat.

But listen to the music, especially the rhythms that percolate around it, and you can't help but be swept up into the All Stars' ceaseless sense of celebration. The album-opening Muloma (Let Us Be United) moves to a light, patient groove built around guitar, percussion and vocal chants. Living Stone is all bright, brassy reggae. Watching All Your Eyes combines the two for a reggae-fied world-beat groove performed with a campfire-like intimacy.

As part of one of the most musically rich and diverse autumns the region has experienced in ages, the All Stars will perform a free concert at Eastern Kentucky University's Brock Auditorium on Sunday. Make this one a priority among your weekend plans.

No small Feat

It has been a long, long time coming, but the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games are barely a week away. The Alltech Fortnight Festival, however, is getting a jump on the action by opening in especially cool fashion with a performance Thursday at the Lexington Opera House by the veteran West Coast rock, roots and groove troupe Little Feat. (7:30 p.m. $35, $43; call (859) 233-3535 or TicketMaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.)

This has been a tumultuous summer for the band, especially with the death in early August of drummer and Feat co-founder Richie Hayward. In Sunday's Life + Arts section, keyboardist Bill Payne — who formed the band with Lowell George, Roy Estrada and Hayward in 1969 — discusses the stylistic breadth of an active present-day Little Feat.

The Fortnight Festival will present more than 50 performances, including rock, opera, bluegrass, jazz and more, through Oct. 10. For the full lineup, go to Alltechfortnightfestival.com.

Jamey Johnson is sold out

He's one of the hottest club acts in country music. Judging by an appearance last week on The Late Show With David Letterman, he also is one of Nashville's most stoically traditional new-generation voices. And with the release this week of his new album, The Guitar Song, the buzz surrounding Jamey Johnson is about to get a lot louder. But if you don't have tickets for Johnson's concert Saturday at Renfro Valley, you are out of luck. It's sold out. For the lucky patrons who secured a seat, show time is 7 p.m.

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