Words by: Dennis Cook | Images from http://www.myspace.com/toubabkrewe
Toubab Krewe :: 04.16.08 :: Moe's Alley :: Santa Cruz, CA
A tinkling of rough hand bells and razor sharp, West African flavored guitar cut the air, followed by a double-time reggae beat that dissolved into a ferocious jazz-fusion style workout. On the surface, Toubab Krewe seems like a pack of Asheville, North Carolina boys drawing heavily from the Mother Land but right out of the gate in Santa Cruz, if you listened to the sinewy connective tissue between Luke Quaranta's blindingly diverse percussion and the traditional African string plucking, slapping and gorgeous mangling of Justin Perkins (kora, Kamel Ngoni and more), there was a slippery blur of genres picking up their feet inside this exciting, very engaging music.
Often anchored to David Pransky's burbling, simply joyous bass instead of the complex, forceful percussion of Quaranta and trap drummer Teal Brown, the Krewe recalled African pillars like Ali Farka Toure, Manu Dibango and Toumani Diabaté in their reverence and disregard for tradition. Like these legends, these are men who've learned the ancient modes and molds and then wet their hands to shape something new, old clay under their nails and fresh, neon dreams behind their eyes. It's a wrestling match that added positive tension to their loping, impossible to categorize compositions. Perhaps the slogan on their MySpace page says it best: "Western trajectories underway."
They aren't from Ghana or Nigeria but have clearly been shaken to their core by African music. Yet, the heavy metal and southern rock of their youth lingers in the explosive midsections of pieces, along with Latin percussion and psychedelic blues workouts worthy of longhaired, young Santana with Gregg Rolie and Neal Schon. They are snake charmers and by the second tune they had begun to uncoil the serpent at the base of our spines, making him strut to a New Orleans second-line bounce that chattered with vocalizing African strings and the sweatiest of electric guitars from the consistently jaw-dropping Drew Heller, a player who evokes Tinariwen, young Jeff Beck and the Arabic wandering of Richard Thompson, often within a single piece!
Adding further layers to this show was Uncle Earl's Rayna Gellert, who wielded an electric violin with a jewelry sculptor's touch, etching lightly on one edge and then burrowing out gold shrapnel on the inside. Her instincts on when to chime in and when to simply bolster some aspect of the music were impressive. This is a very different context than Uncle Earl's string band milieu but within minutes of joining them late in the first set Gellert seemed as happy as a duck in clear water. As the show progressed, she began to egg on Perkins and Pransky especially, working neat pockets that opened up in the moment in a nicely synchronous way. Plus, a bit of feminine energy, on whatever level, is always good, especially in the boy heavy world of jam music where Toubab has found a welcoming audience.
Their main appeal to jam fans isn't so much endless noodling or self-indulgent solos – they're far too focused on group energy and interplay for either, plus they're better composers than most jam bands – but the potential for peak experience hiding in their tunes. Again and again, they forged ahead on pathways they knew only to stumble across a cliff to dive off or a deep furrow in some drum filled valley. The recognition of these moments, these possible launching pads, seemed a collective thing. Rather than one person suddenly moving away from the others, they ventured into these spaces together, which ultimately made the tangents richer. Toubab Krewe is about layers and overlapping concepts and the spark of their juxtapositions, even off script, was intense, bright and warming.
Walking out into the salt night air afterwards one felt they'd witnessed a true 21st Century band, but one with ritual roots. The percussion altar at the back and the exotic African stringed gourds up front spoke to ancient ancestors, sweat lodges and dance circles. The Mesa Boogie amp, electric bass, tough trap drums and electric guitars tied them to today and the traditions of the '60s and '70s in popular music. The compositions often moved with a sweet simplicity that they complicated as they progressed, their enjoyment of directness and obfuscation equal. Like a handful of groups – Cornershop and Manu Chao spring to mind – Toubab Krewe is a melting pot for the world's flavors. That they've planted the legs of this pot in the African continent only makes what they do as sturdy as folklore, but folklore you can shake your stuff to.
JamBase | California
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