Toubab Krewe: Crossing Divides

 
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.

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