By Christopher Gaspar
It has been a while since I have gone out to a music venue in Asheville and seen a local band pack the place. I had a fortunate experience several weeks back when I dropped by the Orange Peel and got an up close view of the rising world troubadours Toubab Krewe. This band did not merely parade all their friends into the Peel to fabricate the illusion of a strong fan base, rather they displayed a wealth of musical knowledge and talent, which more than validated the overflowing crowd pulsating throughout the venue. Not only did they turn in a solid two-set performance smothered with international beats, but their use of traditional instruments such as the kora and kamel ngoni was delivered with a staggering knowledge of native styles and subtleties. Enthusiasts of world music will laud their dexterity, while people entrenched in the world of jam will marvel at their high-energy drum cycles and cooling string backdrops.
Toubab Krewe is an instrumental quintet comprised of five close friends who perform original compositions with a focus on Malian influences. They were spawned in the fall of 2004 after the successful fusion of the Afro-gypsy-surf trio Count Clovis and the West African-inspired drum and dance ensemble Common Ground. Many of the members are multi-instrumentalists and have taken numerous extended trips to West Africa, absorbing the local culture and arts, while having the opportunity to study and perform with masters such as Lamine Soumano, Vieux Kante, Madou Dembele, and Koungbanan Conde. Toubab Krewe collectively is Teal Brown (trap kit), David Pransky (electric bass), Justin Perkins (electric guitar, kamel ngoni, kora), Luke Quaranta (calabash, djembe, scraper) and Drew Heller (electric guitar). Stylistically, the seasoned musicians are equally adept with jazz elements as they are with West African percussion and have slowly been pioneering a new sound incorporating Malian, Jamaican, and American styles.
Toubab Krewe studying in Africa
The band has recently been making the rounds to such venues as SOB's and The Orange Peel as well as taking part in such renowned festivals as Merlefest and Bonnaroo. The buzz generated from their new self-titled release has enabled the band to beef up their performance schedule and finds them tearing up and down the East Coast, opening for such groups as Midnite, Brazilian Girls, Rusted Root as well as a two-night stand with Sound Tribe Sector 9 at Higher Ground in October. In between their hectic touring schedule, the band was able to record their debut album with three-time Grammy winning producer and composer Steven Heller. His music and recordings have received numerous national awards, and he has had the opportunity to produce work by David Holt, Doc and Merle Watson, Jerry Douglas, Chet Atkins, and Sam Bush. "Bamana Niya," "Hang Tan," "Rooster," and "Asheville to Abidjan" are all excellent songs off their debut album that display the band's far-reaching knowledge of diverse musical styles. I had the opportunity to talk with the Toubab Krewe in between tours to gain some insight into their immediate future as well as to explore their rich musical background.
Drew Heller studying in Africa
"Toubab" is a word used in many parts of West Africa where they speak Bambara meaning "foreigner" or "non-African." So in essence, we are the "Foreign Krewe." We embrace the idea of being foreigners who have fallen in love with this music. Having spent considerable time in West Africa studying with some of the area's best musicians and teachers, we are now able to create an original sound within this genre.
-Drew Heller :: Toubab Krewe
CG: Your group's name is quite a unique moniker. Can you explain the origin of Toubab Krewe?
Drew Heller: "Toubab" is a word used in many parts of West Africa where they speak Bambara meaning "foreigner" or "non-African." So in essence, we are the "Foreign Krewe." We embrace the idea of being foreigners who have fallen in love with this music. Having spent considerable time in West Africa studying with some of the area's best musicians and teachers, we are now able to create an original sound within this genre. We took the spelling of "Krewe" as it relates to New Orleans and the history of musical "Krewes" in that region. These are essentially groups of musicians associated with Mardi Gras, but we referenced it to recognize the fertile musical history and background of New Orleans. That city has been a portal for much Afro-centric music through the years where it blended with American music to create jazz, blues, and rock styles. We see ourselves as a part of this ongoing musical and cultural dialogue between West Africa and the United States. Hence "Toubab Krewe."
CG: I see that your band was formed by a melding of two talented existing groups. Are you all from the same area here in Western North Carolina?
Drew Heller: Teal, Justin, and I are all originally from Asheville, but Luke and David are from New York and Vermont, respectively.
Justin Perkins & Vieux Kante :: Africa
CG: Although you are local to the States, the band has quite a diverse musical background. Can you share any interesting anecdotes about your education and apprenticeships from abroad?
Drew Heller: All of our trips abroad have had a serious impact on our musical paths. One time, Justin and I were in Bamako working on a song with our teacher Lamine Soumano. Well, it turned out that he was teaching us this song because he planned for us to appear in the music video for one of the jelimuso (female singers) that he works with, Assetou Konate. Sure enough, we found ourselves in front of the camera the next day.
What was it like taking a step into African pop culture?
It was cool participating in the Malian pop-music scene. We were filmed recording the song "Tama Sanko" in a Bamako recording studio. Watching Malian music videos was a daily routine on our last trip. Some of the videos resemble the way that American videos are put together: the star singer flaunting fancy jewelry, driving around in a flashy car, as well as some choreographed dancing. Conversely, I have seen many differences between both productions as well. In previous trips abroad, I had been a little obsessed with watching these "clips" (a term used all over Francophone, West Africa referring to music videos). Seeing music visually represented on television adds a strange type of depth to your understanding. Our teacher Lamine Soumano directed the video, which was filmed over the course of one full day. Justin and I were excited to have been a part of the shoot, but as the months went by, we stopped feeling anxious to see the finished "clip" on television. Right around the last two weeks that we were in Bamako, "Tama Sanko" started to be in regular circulation on African entertainment channels, Africable and RTS-1. We kept missing it every time it aired, but eventually we saw the clip that included our "Toubab" cameos. The whole experience was one of the more surreal moments on our trip.
Toubab Krewe recording in Bamako :: Africa
Are there any plans to study or perform abroad any time soon?
As soon as we have time.
At the Orange Peel show, I was impressed by the many instruments that your band collectively plays onstage. The complexity of exchanges and patterns between the drummer and percussionists was intriguing. Can you talk a bit about your approach for a live performance?
One of the trademarks of djembe music is the way a lot of the patterns are played around the "downbeat." The pulse is strongly defined, but the music "bubbles" because the pulse is created and emphasized a lot of the time by playing around it or "off" the time. The complexity of the music can throw off listeners who are unfamiliar with the style, but they quickly become fans when they begin to understand the concept. Djembe ensemble music is a very worthwhile study for anyone interested in percussion and rhythm.
Justin Perkins - Toubab Krewe by L. Chang
Justin was continually switching it up and was brilliant with his technique on the traditional instruments such as the kora and kamel ngoni. Can you give us some background on these delicate pieces?
The kora is arguably the most complex chordophone of Africa. It is primarily played by the griots, which are historians, storytellers, and musicians that hold a special place in West African society. It is made from half of a gourd calabash with a hardwood post that runs through it to which the strings are attached. The calabash is covered with a cowhide that is stretched over the open side of the half calabash and then left in the sun to dry tight and hold the hand posts in place. A tall bridge is mounted upright on the skin face of the instrument and separates the strings into two planes. A traditional kora has 21 strings and is played with the thumb and forefingers of both hands.
And the kamel ngoni?
It is a 12-string harp that has its ancestry in the six-string hunter's harp of the region. Its traditional role is closest to that of a bass in the musical ensembles of the region, but it has taken on a much broader role thanks to a new generation of players from Mali. It is of particular importance to mention Vieux Kante, Justin's late ngoni teacher whose virtuosity on the instrument has helped to redefine its role.
Luke Quaranta - Toubab Krewe :: Africa
You guys must have had a ball working with these traditional instruments in the studio for your debut album. Were there any highlights of note from those recording sessions?
Our studio experience was incredible. We had been touring all month and entered the studio the moment we got back to Asheville. We recorded with Steven Heller at Upstream Productions for a tremendous week of sessions. Since we had just gotten off tour, we still had that electric feeling inside from being onstage the whole month of March. We had to go back out on tour pretty much right after we finished recording. The postproduction on the album took up the next couple months, leading up to its release at Bonnaroo.
There are several strong cuts on the new studio album; however, "Bamana Niya" and "Asheville to Abidjan" are two tracks that I seem to keep going back to. Can you talk a bit about some of the songs off the new record?
We are very proud of the new album and "Asheville to Abidjan," "Bamana Niya," "Djarabi," and "Hang Tan" are a few of the highlights from the disc. We first composed "Asheville to Abidjan" with our percussion and dance group Common Ground. The song is a drums-only piece that integrates djembe music styles from the Ivory Coast and Guinea. "Bamana Niya" is a traditional tune from Mali that roughly translates to "Here in Bambara Country." The Bambara people are the largest ethnic group in Mali, and the song is a dedication to our brilliant instructors from whom we learned so much during our extended trips to the area. "Hang Tan" is an original tune written by Justin and Drew during their stay in Bamako, Mali. The song represents the integration of our American influences with our heavy West African sound. It was the first of the original songs Drew and Justin had composed while in Mali and provided a glimpse into what eventually would become material for Toubab Krewe.
Dancer at Toubab Krewe :: SOB's NYC by Alana
Let's talk about your performance schedule for a moment. You have some great opening slots this month and into the fall season supporting STS9, Rusted Root, and Midnite, among others. What are your expectations for these upcoming co-bills?
We are very excited about all of our opening shows coming up in the next few months. It will be nice to share the stage with some great acts that are further along in their touring careers and give us a chance to play in front of some large crowds that have never heard our music. We feel great about not only gaining exposure for our band's contemporary approach to the music, but also for the opportunity to expose music fans to styles of music from West Africa.
Justin Perkins :: Toubab Krewe :: Africa
It appears you made a nice introductory impression on the audience at Bonnaroo. Being a new band on the circuit, what were your feelings about playing at such an established festival?
It was a great experience and an event we will not soon forget. Before we started our first set, there were only twenty or thirty people at our performance area. However, by the end of the third song, there were literally hundreds of people that were cramming into the tent feverishly dancing. The weekend kind of felt like a dream as I don't think any of us slept more than five hours over the course of the four days we were at the festival.
I see you also performed at the rain-soaked All Good Music Festival in West Virginia. Were there any collaborations of note or did you catch any quality sets of music?
We had a great time jamming backstage with C-Money and Nate from John Brown's Body. It would be great to run into those guys again; they put on a great show.
It looks like you've had quite a busy year touring up North. Have you adopted a favorite venue or city to play?
The Black Repertory Theatre in Providence is always a blast, and SOB's in New York City is a place we continually look forward to playing. Vermonters have always been supportive and welcoming of our group. We just played a couple festivals up there, including one with Midnite, a great reggae act the whole band is always excited to see.
Toubab Krewe :: Africa
So what obscurities do you have in your CD player for these long road trips?
Taraf de Haidouks, Oumou Sangare, our field recordings from Africa, Led Zeppelin, Uncle Earl, Django Reinhardt, Dezarie, Fac Alliance, Mah Kouyate, and Outkast.
As the calendar moves into fall and winter, what are your plans for the coming months?
Our plans are to continue to tour, but we are not sure exactly when we will go back into the studio. We've already been discussing material for when we return, but a run out West sometime this year would be great.
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