Toubab Krewe | 04.16 | Santa Cruz

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images from

Toubab Krewe :: 04.16.08 :: Moe's Alley :: Santa Cruz, CA

Justin Perkins - Toubab Krewe
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!

Toubab Krewe
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.

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[Published on: 4/28/08]

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thedude10 Mon 4/28/2008 03:59PM
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these dude are nasty

id rather be phishing Mon 4/28/2008 04:07PM
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heard these guys were amazing, i have to get some of their music. Any recommendations? a band that sounds a lot like them that everyone should listen to is this Senegalese band, Orchestra Baobab, if you want some amazing African talent check them out, they are playing few shows in US this summer.

tourfan starstarstarstarstar Mon 4/28/2008 04:20PM
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I love to catch Toubob live. So entertaining, so much soul shakin'. I've wanted to write a review myself, but just wasn't confident enough that I'd be able to write as smoothly as DC has done here. Nice job Dennis. Wish I could make a show with Rayna - that must be really cool. Will certainly try to make a date in the Northeast.

moemoe6434 Mon 4/28/2008 04:49PM
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I love these guys!

gmoo Mon 4/28/2008 05:31PM
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These guys are awesome and their sound is pro. Check them out in a small venue if possible.

Jukebox Hero Mon 4/28/2008 06:11PM
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Jukebox Hero

Excellent review of an excellent band. DC, you never let me down.

And gonephishin couldn't be more right about Orchestra Boabob. Although they are not that similar to the Mali-influenced Krew (their songs are all about the vocals- sung in French, Spanish, and Woloof (sp?)), they are amazing in their own right and feature some guitar tunings that are completely foreign to most anything you're likely to have heard. Their album Pirate's Choice (only one of two, the other of which was released just a couple years back) is essential to any music collection. These guys were a supergroup in their homeland, like Senegal's answer to Blind Faith. I am bummed I'm not gonna be able to catch one of their festival sets this summer.

NickBoeka Mon 4/28/2008 08:09PM
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Dennis has the words....

and these guys rock too

moejoerisin Mon 4/28/2008 10:06PM
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stellar work as always, dennis - your words are spot on as usual. "...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!" seriously this guy is amazing.. he plays a lot of superb descending solos which is a quality i really love it guitarists.. he adds such a great element to such an amazing band and group of guys. check 'em out.

also, moemoe - thanks for those pics!

phunkle starstarstarstarstar Tue 4/29/2008 10:55AM
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Great write-up, and these guys are as good as the writer suggests. To idratherbefishing, I believe their only album is a self-titled one but one you should own, it's amazing. But seeing these guys licve takes them to yet another height. Saw them due a late night set in Asheville last year and they blew me away. It was rtaining hard and I still couldn;t pull myself away.

jackstraw1984 Tue 4/29/2008 12:52PM
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idratherbefishing, you should try and get yoru hands on a couple of live recordings. I'm pretty sure they've got a good number up on archive, but i'm not 100%. And phunkle's right, their only current album is their self-titled, BUT they've finished recording their NEW ALBUM so it should be out soon. As far as shows to get, try and locate 3/26/2005 from the Orange Peel in Asheville, or their 4/20 shows from '06. Also the Trade Music Farm show from this past September was unreal, as was their late night set from AmJam last summer. These guys bring it hard, I'd say you should try and get your hands on any live shows they play around the WNC area, they're fuckin top-notch.

andyctree starstar Thu 5/1/2008 05:11PM
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if you enjoy bands covering traditional african music you should try listening to the originals. it has a much more authentic feel, and the quality of music is undebatable.