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Originally published June 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 26, 2007 at 2:20 PM

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From life as refugees, songs of true inspiration

You may have heard them on the soundtrack of the harrowing Oscar-nominated film "Blood Diamonds" or on their own album, "Living Like a Refugee...

Seattle Times jazz critic

Coming up

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, 7 p.m. (all ages) and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Triple Door, 216 Union St., Seattle; $20-$22 (206-838-4333 or www.thetripledoor.net).

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You may have heard them on the soundtrack of the harrowing Oscar-nominated film "Blood Diamonds" or on their own album, "Living Like a Refugee."

Or maybe you saw the moving, self-named 2006 documentary at last year's Seattle International Film Festival. Or on "Oprah."

If you've somehow missed them, you have another chance to hear one of the most compelling and unusual world-music acts to ever go on tour.

Tuesday at the Triple Door, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars play two shows honoring International World Refugee Day. The show is presented by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a legal services organization.

It's a timely show, given the immigration bill being considered in the Senate, and the fact that the number of refugees in the world has skyrocketed to 10.6 million souls.

The Refugee All Stars formed in a refugee camp in the Republic of Guinea in the late '90s, during the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone that saw the grisly rise of child warriors and gratuitous amputations.

The group started life as a duo of leader/singer/composer Reuben N. Koroma and guitarist Francis John Langba (aka Franco), but grew into a full band to entertain at various camps. Both of the band's founders had been musicians in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

Coming up

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, 7 p.m. (all ages) and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Triple Door, 216 Union St., Seattle; $20-$22 (206-838-4333 or www.thetripledoor.net).

As Koroma explains in the documentary, he registered as a refugee in 1997, thinking he might be in a camp for "six months or a year."

He did not repatriate until 2004.

What makes the band so fascinating is not just its situation, but the topical, inspirational content of its songs.

"I take all the problems and suffering of the people and make a song out of it," Koroma says, with simple eloquence.

With such an amazing back story, most of the press about SLRAS has been about the war, the camps and the group's unusual genesis.

But the music these guys play deserves some consideration, particularly the way it reflects the criss-crossing voyages music has taken across the Atlantic.

"The whole history of Sierra Leone is about slaves returning to Liberia and Freetown," explains Peter Davenport, a music producer for Microsoft who did field work in rural Sierra Leone in the 1980s.

That interchange between the New World — the Caribbean, especially — and Africa is especially evident in the band's use of the bouncy, regular upbeats of reggae and the lightly skipping beat of goombay.

It's interesting to watch the development of one of their best songs, "Weapon Conflict," from the film to the record. Describing the pointless war, the song begins, "When two elephants are fighting, the grass will suffer" and, in the camp, has a light, acoustic touch. Later, in 2002, when the band traveled to Freetown courtesy of the U.N. to bring back the news that the city was now safe, the song (and the band as it was then constituted) acquired a drummer and electric bass, and had a much harder beat and a grinding, novelty vocal sound.

Interestingly, on the eventual album track, the tempo and attack come back down, the feeling is light again and there's organ in the background: transformed, but classic reggae.

Even as early as 1984, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, reggae had caught on, with bands such as Alpha Blondy dominating the charts.

Though inspired by an East African ruler (Haile Selassie), reggae is Jamaican music. But Bob Marley's black-liberation politics gave reggae particular appeal in West Africa.

A less well-known Caribbean-African connection is goombay, which has a beat similar to calypso or even beguine (more common in French-speaking African countries). Though this element of SLRAS has been called "palm wine" in the press, it's actually a guitar and vocal music with African roots, most popular in Bermuda.

The goombay itself is a goat-skin drum you sit on while playing, but the term came to stand for the style.

Says Davenport: "Goombay music is what you'd hear in Freetown, various styles of it. These guys would travel out from the city, so you might hear some if it in the villages. Goombay is a more urban form. Back then, you wouldn't hear as much electric guitar. And the reggae thing is more recent."

"Soda Soap," a sweet song with call-and-answer vocals, has the goombay feel. The lyric says people used to take their humble, homemade soap in Freetown for granted, but now that they're finally back home, they appreciate it.

Like most of the Refugee All Stars' songs — and much of West African and Caribbean music — "Soda Soap" has a moral lesson.

Amazingly, it's told with a light heart and cheerful melody.

When you consider all that these band members have been through, this is a musical miracle in itself.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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