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."

Continue reading for more on Toubab Krewe...

 
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. 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!

-Drew Heller

 
Photo by: Daniel Barojas

This brings up a sticky yet often unstated factor for Toubab Krewe – these are Southern honkies playing music with deep African roots.

Toubab Krewe by Chelsea Dee
"I've been to Africa three or four times, and you always wonder how you're going to be perceived over there, especially when you've delved this deep into their culture and you're hanging out with musicians. They have a caste system in West Africa, and musicians are real low in it. But in olden days they were close to the king and they pass culture down, so they're important," says Perkins. "So much of their social structure deals with respect, and if you respect what you're doing then people totally open up. You obviously stand out because you're a white speck but they can be very kind. We've gone there to really study the music and not just be tourists, and they're so flattered by that. I don't have a lot of money in my pocket but as an American you really do by comparison. But the respect has nothing to do with that, and if you go in with respect and a desire to learn they really open their hearts to you. It's such a breath of fresh air to be in a place where it's not about what you have but about who you are as a person. [With the music], if you know the tradition and have respect for it then you can do whatever you want to with it. You're an artist and they honor that."

Toubab Krewe aren't trying to be a rock band, a highlife group or jazz combo, though there are elements of each in their sound. Part of what makes listening to them so exciting is how one feels taken elsewhere. Theirs is the national music of a country with no name that appears on no map. It feels Pangaea-like but without the icky, New Age connotations all-too-frequently attached to globetrotting efforts. Toubab Krewe doesn't make "World Music." There's none of that pseudo-genre's boutique politeness to their music, which doesn't shy away from aggression, dissonance and even bubbling disorder if it feels right.

"This has been such a wonderful, interesting experience playing music that doesn't necessarily fit into a genre. It's not one thing or another; it is what it is," says Heller enigmatically. "Early on as we began to study in West Africa, we met people that really emphasized playing from your heart, playing from your own influences. You can copy a solo or copy a region but you feel that. We all really respect the traditional side of it, too. I'm very indebted to the great teachers I had growing up in Asheville around Old Time music, old Irish music. Form is so important and much respect is given to form, but there's also a great deal of experimentation [in Toubab Krewe]. It's a liberating combo. If rock 'n' roll is in our hearts we express it. If angst is in our heart, then we express it. If Western Swing or honky-tonk is in our hearts, then we express them. Just express what it is you feel."

Toubab Krewe by Paul Chandler
Heller's guitar work shows this wide, unorthodox sweep, conjuring up the West African heat of King Sunny Adé and Ali Farka Toure but also the pulverizing ingenuity of young Jeff Beck and the tasty laid-back vibe of Shuggie Otis, all bolstered by Heller's natural humility and a fabulous ear for stepping in and out of the music happening around him.

"It's usually just intuitive and subconscious," Heller offers succinctly, sidestepping the giants I've placed him next to like a man used to parrying compliments. "I'm changing a lot of the time. On certain songs I'll be caught in a cycle or stuck in a landscape and then I realize there's realms of expression in them I didn't realize. That makes for a constant state of change. On some pieces I don't want to open up with volume, feedback and distortion but I sense that sort of power lurking somewhere in the music. Sometimes it takes a while for it to come to the surface. At other times, if I had been driving something really hard I realize I can relax and give things a bunch of space."

The choice to put out a live record as their sophomore offering after 2005's self-titled studio debut came about by accident. They had the recording rig handy and thought it would be good to capture a year-ending pair of shows at the Orange Peel in 2007 for archival purposes. Luckily, virtual tape was running during these switched-on performances, which skirt the usual pitfalls of many official live albums, where bands are often too self-conscious to play to their full potential. In Toubab's case, this was a New Year's Eve run in their hometown and they just wanted to deliver the best music possible. The difference may seem subtle but it isn't, and one hears that in the vibrancy and lack of caution in their playing throughout Orange Peel.

Continue reading for more on Toubab Krewe...

 
Music, to me, is like going to church. It's a spiritual thing and feeling like you're bound to one thing or another really has nothing to do with it at all. I guess it comes back to just being an artist. You create what you create; you can't judge what you're doing when it comes out.

-Justin Perkins

 
Photo by: David Suskind

"Our initial intention was to do a studio record but we've been so busy on the road. We went into the studio a couple times but both times were only five days at a time. And conceptually we were all setting up in the same room and playing live, so the idea was to capture what we do in the same room or same stage together," says Heller. "In the last three years since we released our first record we've been on the road for roughly nine months out of each year. [Live At The Orange Peel] is pretty much who we are and where we're at today. I like that it has some rough edges and we were pushing it. We hadn't played in Asheville in a while and we were really inspired after having a good bit of that month off. And we had a pretty good studio session in Asheville about two weeks before these shows were recorded. Now, we're just building up material and getting in the right studio state of mind."

Rayna Gellert with Toubab Krewe
By Reggie Tidwell
The other guest on Orange Peel is occasional tour mate Uncle Earl violinist Rayna Gellert, who takes to Toubab Krewe like a proverbial duck to water.

"Having grown up in Western and North Carolina, I love traditional music. I used to play the banjo myself a little bit. With the kora, they have their own fiddles in West Africa, so it's just so nice having Rayna with us. She fits just perfect," adds Perkins. "She mixes so well with what we're doing in such a flawless, almost effortless way."

"She's absolutely one of my favorite musicians and people on the planet. She's such a natural. Her voice is so real, and her bowing hand and playing style is just so good! Her family has a really amazing creative spirit, too. One of her brothers works in film in Asheville and another is an artist. I think she grew up in a very creative environment," says Heller, who values Gellert's additional string voice in Toubab Krewe, which provides a foil for he and Perkins. "She's able to draw lines between Justin and I. She adds another physical dimension that I didn't even realize was there."

Live, Toubab Krewe exhibits a kind of telepathy that's a ball to watch. You can see the music play across one face then pass quickly through their hands and eyes to the man next them or even over their shoulder without a glance to the furious percussionists bruising their palms behind the frontline. In a basic way, all group music functions this way but there's visible kinetics to Toubab's interactions that layers further dimensions onto their already well-stacked sound.

"One thing that's really beautiful – and I feel we're very blessed in this – is we've known each other so long and we're such good friends that we're able to communicate very quickly with how we're feeling. We've been playing music together since we were kids, both formally and informally, and it's a very open, honest environment," says Heller. "It's a place where you can step out and experiment very comfortably."

One hears this easygoing yet totally active dynamic in the way percussion is handled in this band. It would be easy to relegate the drums to a support role and keep the focus on the string guys up front, but as they go along Toubab Krewe continues to hone their skill at easing back and allowing every distinct element in their sound to shine. However, the rise and fall within the music avoids the standard bebop soloist schtick. Rarely does anyone totally drop out but each man is developing their support skills and discovering new ways all the time to uplift his fellow musicians.

Toubab Krewe by Lukas Blalock
"The interplay between the percussion and the melodic end is so key, and it's changing over time," says Heller. "We're getting more comfortable as five but also as just say two onstage. Sometimes there's something going on back and forth between Dave and Justin or Justin and myself or whatever, and we're getting better at supporting different geometry to let things change shape and honor what the speaking voice is."

One of the big appeals of this band is the sense that no hard and fast rules apply. It's in such lawless environments that truly new music emerges, and that's certainly been the case with these North Carolina boys. They honor various traditions but don't try to emulate any one. As scary as it can be, Toubab Krewe moves in uncharted waters, which makes for an exhilarating, unexpected trip for musicians and listeners alike.

"Music, to me, is like going to church. It's a spiritual thing and feeling like you're bound to one thing or another really has nothing to do with it at all. I guess it comes back to just being an artist. You create what you create; you can't judge what you're doing when it comes out," says Perkins. "Lately, there's been a lot of random influences coming in. Having Rayna with us makes it so much more country [laughs]. I can be playing ngoni but it has a heavy zydeco feel, and then surf licks from Drew and really hardcore Ivory Coast percussion from Luke and Teal. The world is becoming smaller and through technology people are just more aware of everybody else. It's kind of breaking down stereotypes. You can do whatever you want to."

Here's the video for "Buncombe to Badala" from the live album:

Toubab Krewe "Buncombe to Badala (B2B)" from Toubab Krewe on Vimeo.

Live At The Orange Peel is now available from iTunes and Amazon. Fans who buy the album on iTunes will be treated to a free bonus track called "Sekou," recorded live at the band's most recent show at Asheville's Orange Peel. CDs hit stores on March 10.

Toubab Krewe is on tour now, dates available here.

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Comments

Greatwaves Thu 1/15/2009 06:04PM
+4 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Greatwaves

This band is the bombdiggity omb, they are so uniquely fun and awesome, their jams and tunes are truelly heacen sent, and a bunch of super duper cool cats, id love to see em hit up some dance festivals this year and really get those gears grinding on the main line, so get with it folks and check this truelly amazing band out

moemoe6434 starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/15/2009 06:44PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

I love these guys and never miss them when they are around! One of the best things gonig now!

Here is the last show I wen to: http://www.moemoephoto.com/?p=123

phunkle starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/15/2009 08:27PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

phunkle

These guys are amazing! Both discs are really good and part of my regular rotation. But the author is right, you just gotta go see 'em. Their shows are so high energy and take you on such a musical journey. Most memorable time seeing Toubab was late nite at AmJam a few years ago with a light mist coming down. They blow me away each time I see a show and can't wait for my next!

MyDogIsBlaze starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/15/2009 08:36PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

MyDogIsBlaze

Wow, that's all I kept saying the first time I saw them. Such a fun jam to dance to, so pure, and primitive. Can't wait to see you guys, EAST COAST Please!

rainydaywomen420 starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/15/2009 08:55PM
+4 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

rainydaywomen420

love toubab, love love love the toubab

playdoh starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/15/2009 08:57PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

I think I may have written the first feature on this band for this website. They are a solid group from top to bottom and merely a sampling of talent from the great Asheville Music Scene.

chetzel69 starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/15/2009 09:02PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Been listening to these guys for some years now and every time I can, I go but the best of there shows that I've seen was recent in Jamaica at the Holidaze. God Damn Its always good to run into Toubab.

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} Fri 1/16/2009 06:24AM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^›      {¬¿¬}

great band, fantastic playing.

Hang Tan is a stellar tune :)

okalrightic Fri 1/16/2009 08:38AM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

yeah, toubab is the shit

mojowrkn starstarstarstar Fri 1/16/2009 09:17AM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

mojowrkn

LOVE THIS BAND!!!!

ericzilla starstarstarstarstar Fri 1/16/2009 09:50AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

ericzilla

going to see them tomorrow!

gmoo Fri 1/16/2009 01:17PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

gmoo

This band is just plain ol' fun to see and they are chill bros. See them if you can. All we need is a 51 ft ladder!

manjotar starstarstarstarstar Fri 1/16/2009 01:43PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

manjotar

i agree, this is one of my favorite bands to see live! they get me dancing from the first song to the very last note!

and phunkle: that was an amazing memory, amjam was actually the first time i saw them, we were back at the tent and we heard this AMAZING music that just drew us down to it... i've been a freak for 'em ever since!

harrisonp starstarstarstarstar Fri 1/16/2009 02:18PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

harrisonp

GREAT LIVE SHOW - ALL AROUND GREAT BAND!

mattguff9 Fri 1/16/2009 06:52PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

mattguff9

I caught these guys at merlefest 2 years ago and I found myself dancing before I even thought about dancing. I was headed to a show at a different stage and I just couldn't leave toubab. Musically intriguing and danceable, the perfect combo. Please keep coming back to MPLS guys, I'm spreadin' the word (although I wish I lived in Asheville).

Ned8 starstarstarstarstar Fri 1/16/2009 10:07PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Great. Great Great. Love this group. A must see

schofizzl Sat 1/17/2009 01:50AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

schofizzl

sounds pretty good to me

WaveSnacker starstarstarstarstar Sat 1/17/2009 09:20AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

This band is AWESOME!!! My favorite band running the circuit, and a MUST SEE to all. Jammed out surf rock (and beyond) Rules.

standingtaller starstarstarstarstar Sat 1/17/2009 04:18PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

standingtaller

I love these guys. A new batch of songs would be great, tho.

manjotar starstarstarstarstar Sat 1/17/2009 07:49PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

manjotar

actually a good part of the new live album is new songs...

HoodooVoodoo Sun 1/18/2009 08:51PM
Show -3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
groovatronics starstarstarstarstar Sun 1/18/2009 11:03PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

aw yeeeah.

ain't no one's got a problem with these guys!

and yeah great write-up too, good job. who's excited for the fox??

JaphyTaphy starstarstarstarstar Mon 1/19/2009 09:09PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

JaphyTaphy

These guys are straight up the real deal. There's no gimmicky attempts at forcing a world vibe or a stretches to make themselves a "genre-fusing band" involved. Their music simply exists in an extremely pure form with clear signs of extranational influences. Seriously blown away with their sound upon the first listen and subsequently intrigued even moreso. Would gladly welcome a stronger presence in festies and such from the Krewe. And, as always, solid job by Dennis delivering the whole thing for our eyes.

wsp10 Tue 1/20/2009 05:54AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

wsp10

these guys are amazing. from the first time i heard them at there thurs night bonnaroo show i was hooked. best show of the weekend and i just happened to stumble upon it by accident(this tent).

everytime i have seen them since they just keep getting better and better.

DirtyRice starstarstarstarstar Wed 1/21/2009 09:56PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

DirtyRice

these guys are genius! Last year they blew away the McDowell Mountain Music Festival. Cant wait to see em live again. This album will tide me over til they come back to AZ

nerpees starstarstarstarstar Fri 1/23/2009 06:49AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

WOWZA! Fell in love the first time I heard them.Can't get enough.I'm about to see them in Greensboro too. YIPPEEEE!

jar442 starstarstarstarstar Wed 2/18/2009 07:28AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

jar442

They come to Pittsburgh, and I get to stand inches from them at Club Cafe!! One of my favorite live performances. They make you dance the entire time!