Toubab Krewe: Crossing Divides

By: Dennis Cook

Toubab Krewe by Lukas Blalock
Where do musical ideas come from? In the 21st century, the fluidity of information and recordings is like mercury on a mirror. Borders and neat definitions mean less and less with every year, yet few bands engage this newfound freedom in a way that does more than graft one tradition onto another like some ugly, ill-fitting accessory that doesn't jive with the main outfit. The trick – and it's a tough one – is to create a whole new set of clothes sewn from varied fabrics and colorful threads obtained from around the corner and around the globe. From the first time I heard Toubab Krewe a few years ago, I had the sense I was in the presence of this kind of newness, and that feeling has only increased with each encounter, as their continent bridging instrumental music married the Appalachian Mountains to Ghana, Nashville to Kingston and so on.

The quintet hails from Asheville, North Carolina but generates a truly planetary vibe that rides hard like rock, swerves like good jazz and bubbles with the West African echoes at the heart of their music. It's not overstating things to say they are one of the first truly international groups of this new century, and Teal Brown (drums), Drew Heller (guitar), Justin Perkins (kora, kamel ngoni, guitar), David Pranksy (bass) and Luke Quaranta (percussion) seem very aware of the slippery, elusive nature of their music. Yet, their sheer exuberance at exploring without limits creates a most inviting atmosphere, a space as heady as perfume and hot as a sweat lodge at times but always moving, seeking, reaching. One can hear them stretching out on their new album, Live At The Orange Peel (released November 29 on Upstream Records), where the group's many cinematic qualities come to bear. Close your eyes and I'd be surprised if Toubab's music doesn't conjure up lively images or full-blown scenes in your mind.

"There's a lot of shape to it, and when it's moving quicker it feels more place-like, a landscape we're exploring," says Heller. "Sometimes it feels more like rooms with doors that open to places you have and haven't been. There's stairways into the air, and sometimes you fall through a trapdoor and get stuck in a cellar [laughs]. At other times, it's ways to other places and we've taken you there. Hopefully it's somewhere you liked and you want to find your way back there. But, we've got to leave breadcrumbs or we'll never find OUR way back there!"

Playing instrumental music means taking people on a journey without the blunt instrument of language. The colors dabbled and turns taken have no narrator, and it's commendable to find a group like Toubab Krewe so resolutely committed to storytelling without a net, so comfortable with subtlety and open interpretation. Even when they do bring in a human voice, like Orange Peel guest Umar Bin Hassan (The Last Poets), their music seems to catalyze something nonlinear and beautifully opaque, a swirl of two poetic streams commingling in real time.

Toubab Krewe by Vincent Tseng
"There's no explicit spoken language to directly put imagery or place or shape into people's minds but I think our music feels open and fluid but still very connected to narrative," offers Heller. "When I'm playing there's definitely something going on, not quite storytelling but definitely something like it. Everyone in the band listens to lots of music with lyrics AND lots of music without lyrics AND lots of music with lyrics we don't understand [laughs]. If it's sung in French I might understand the song. If it's in Bambara there might be phrases I understand, and I can ask and find out what it means. But with any of the dialects that stem from it I'm out of luck! In the places we've traveled [in Africa] French is often the only common language. And while we don't sing onstage, we do talk a LOT about music offstage. We're constantly listening to and talking about music, either our own or recordings or live music we've seen."

"Having no words allows such a mélange of different styles. Without words you can interpret it as you want," says Perkins. "If we did have a vocalist would they sing in English, Bambara or French? It's so easy to direct listeners to just one area when you have a singer up there. That's what's so fun about Umar is it's just him talking and thinking about what he thinks about. What Umar does – the way he speaks and what he's speaking of – resonates so deeply with me. He says so much about how the world is today. Words, on the level Umar is putting them out, mean so much right here, right now. He finds a place in this music that doesn't usually have words. It's overwhelming sometimes. It's a trip to cross paths with that guy. He catches some shit for what he does with us, jamming with a bunch of young, white dudes."

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