Pan-African Notes: Sierra Leone’s Refugee Reggae All Stars Meet Mario Pascal @ 2720 on 5/30by Michael Kuelker
“Salone” means “Sierra Leone” in Krio, one of six languages on the new album by Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. Radio Salone is a thrilling tour through reggae, soukous and cross-cultural polyrhythms, as well wrought and mood-enhancing an album as I’ve heard thus far in 2012.
SLRAS’s story is by now well known among those who follow contemporary world music, a narrative that bridges from refugee camps in the wake of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war (1991-2002) to the international stage. Only Malian desert blues band Tinariwen can be included in a conversation about musical refugees who have broken through to the world renown. The band members’ lives as refugees and musicians were chronicled in a 2005 documentary which found a wide, responsive audience. Their debut, Living Like a Refugee, followed in 2006.
And shortly, they will bring their hothouse of African music into St. Louis. SLRAS will be nine dates into a long summer tour when they perform on Wednesday, May 30 at 2720 (2720 Cherokee). Loyal Family Promotions is taking great pains to inform everyone that this is an early show, with SLRAS going on from 9 – 10:30 p.m. Mario Pascal plays at 8 p.m. and Vladimir ‘The Mad Russian’ Noskov brings his Iron Curtain Hi Fi for an hour of roots reggae vinyl starting at 7 p.m. and as much as he can get between sets.
On Saturday, May 26, Mario Pascal will be my guest on “Positive Vibrations” for music and conversation. The program will feature as much SLRAS music as the FCC will allow as well as other African reggae, classic Jamaican roots and a sprinkle of brand new tunes. “Positive Vibrations,” co-hosted by Professor Skank & the I, airs every Saturday from 9-11 p.m.. Mario will be on the mike at 9:15; later the same evening, he plays at The Pulse (2847 Cherokee).
A St. Louis-raised son of Haitian parents, Mario Pascal is a reggae/world beat artist whose original music and vision are a perfect blend for the May 30 show. He says that the May 30 event is at heart a concert about pan-African unity.
“Definitely, it’s a blessing to be a part of this show because in my opinion it brings forth the whole purpose and reasoning behind reggae music,” he told me in a telephone interview this month.
“Staying with Rastafari culture in general, to me it’s a gateway to the infinite pool of African consciousness, you know what I’m saying? Reggae music is a bridgeway because it is at a riddim and a pace that everyone can feel. And through that, especially with a band like Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, it brings you into a whole nother sense of being in terms of understanding their struggle and where they came from and how they even came together to make music.
“And when they came together to make music, what is the music they chose to play? Reggae music. That’s a testament of the art form of reggae; it’s a testament to what it does as far as liberating the people in terms of mind; and it’s a testament how culture really, to me, is where the true battlefield lies. How can we liven ourselves up? It’s not through technology, it’s not through drugs, it’s through the music.”
Mario Pascal’s music is a hybrid with reggae at the core and other forms of black music embedded in the mix. He calls his style ‘world reggae fusion.’
“The foundation is reggae, but like I say it’s a gateway. For me it’s a gateway to other musical styles of the African diaspora, playing samba and bossa nova from Brazil, or playing konpa from Haiti, or playing soul music from America. For me especially, as a pan-Africanist, we are all one in terms of our descendancy, so why not use the gift of this culture to do what we’re supposed to do, which is to spread love, light and liberty through word-sound-and-music. That’s my personal mission.”
A Rastafarian, Mario Pascal was born in 1977 to Haitian parents in St. Louis, and he is a teacher of history and life skills at Berkeley High School. His upbringing was, in short, a polyglot experience.
“I was just like everyone else, man, just floatin’ face down in the mainstream trying to fit into a box. Every time, I was getting feedback from the world, ‘hey, you don’t fit into this box; you’re not like us.’ All right, what box do I fit in? It really wasn’t until I stopped resisting the truth in myself and I started really giving into it, and that was about my sophomore year in college; stop giving in to the strange life and start into the life that I know.
“Growing up in St. Louis with Haitian parents, it’s Haiti in the house and the United States outside of the house. It’s a truly unique perspective in terms of how you take in the world.”
Mario Pascal is finishing a new album with Jamaican-born, East St. Louis-based producer JR. In the meantime, though, he hits an especially sweet hashmark in his personal timeline by opening for Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, who likewise use their art for the spread of a message of liberation and unity. SLRAS represent a heartening possibility for conscious cultural music on an international level.
Once Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Star broke through, they began performing at choice festivals worldwide such as Fuji Rock (Japan) to Sierra Nevada World Music Festival (California) to Bonnaroo (Tennessee). And because this is America, the group’s reception domestically went from big to improbable and weird. The band members were guests of Oprah Winfrey, and they were fast-tracked into big whoop compilations, such as a U2 tribute album and the Blood Diamond soundtrack. They opened for Aerosmith after collaborating with them on John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” on Amnesty International’s anthology Instant Karma on behalf of Darfur, Sudan.
And through it all Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars retained not only their essence, they enhanced it. Their follow up album Rise & Shine suffered from no sophomore slump. Recorded in Freetown, Sierra Leone and New Orleans, the record was full of entrancing west African and Caribbean rhythms, just as it nodded to the growing interest in acoustic world music with the inclusion of long, happy “campfire unplugged” tracks in the album’s deluxe version.
The new Radio Salone is perhaps the band’s best, with strong songs from front to back and the cohesion of a musical unit in its prime. It’s ike listening to the Stones’ Let It Bleed as compared to The Rolling Stones five years earlier. Some of the credit goes to the five-star talents of Victor Axelrod, aka Ticklah, on keyboards and production; his resume includes Amy Winehouse, Afrobeat champions Antibalas and the NYC-based reggae outfit Easy Star All Stars.
The radio theme of Radio Salone’s album art evokes the importance of radio itself as a lifeline for music and news. Radio was especially vital to the band during the civil war. Just as it is for us at 88.1, for vastly different but understandable reasons, during these gray days of the Big Media gorgon.