Toubab Krewe: Somewhere Between Worlds

toubab_krewe2.jpgWith a name that means "foreigner" throughout much of West Africa, and a style that can sound just as foreign to much of the rest of the world, Toubab Krewe from Asheville, North Carolina is quickly establishing themselves as one of the most innovative voices in music today. 

Much as Chuck Berry did when he reworked the blues to create the now familiar sound associated with rock ‘n’ roll, or similar to what the Grateful Dead did when they got psychedelic on folk music, Toubab Krewe has taken the traditional sounds emanating from West Africa, thrown them in a blender with the music they grew up with in America and created something completely unclassifiable.

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toubab-08061204.jpgToubab Krewe’s sound is powered by guitarist Drew Heller’s adventurous surf-rock style, which helps to set a blistering tempo.  If Dick Dale made love to an African Tribal Rhythm you would have Toubab Krewe.  They avoid being defined by one culture or style; instead they play their own brand of Afro-Rock ‘n’ Roll that relies heavily on the seemingly effortless melding of two very distinct cultures. 

Percussionist Luke Quaranta says, “Toubab Krewe is engaged very deeply in that back and forth musical conversation between West Africa and here (U.S).”

The band formed in 2004 after childhood friends Drew Heller (guitar) and Justin Perkins (kora, kamel-ngoni) returned from living in the musically rich Bamako region of Mali.  While there they had struck upon the idea of forming a band that would marry the two very diverse sounding elements that they loved so much. 

Quaranta remembers: “While they were living in Bamako, Drew came home one day and Justin was sitting on the porch playing the kamel-ngoni (a type of African harp).  Drew picked up his guitar and played a line, and what they ended up playing basically became ‘Hang Tan,’ which was the first song they wrote.  It was just a moment sitting on the porch, and they had been studying and immersed in that world. The sound just hit them and they realized what the potential was for us. 

"When we came back together, the two of them already had it in mind; they had already been scheming about the band.  They realized in that moment that this was going to be something, and we would come at it from a rock set-up and bring our own essence to it.”

Upon their return home they recruited long time friends Teal Brown (drums), David Pransky (bass), and Quaranta who had all spent time themselves traveling and studying in Africa learning the drumming and percussion techniques related with the traditional sound of the region. 

Quaranta sees the evolution of the friends into band a natural step for the five of them.  “It has been a very organic process in the way the band has formed," he says.  "We share friendships that have existed since before the band formed and that is very important to us.  That really fuels the energy for what we do.”

toubab_krewe1.jpgDuring their time in Africa they studied under many of the genres masters, including Malian master Lamine Soumano, and this studied authenticity bleeds through in their music.  Toubab Krewe is not just a band of American college kids on an African holiday fooling around with the traditional poly-rhythms and sounds found in West Africa who then became just another barefoot, dreadlocked world-beat band banging on some congas.  No, Toubab Krewe is truly unique in the music they create. They work to create music that finds a middle ground between the two diverse styles, until as Quaranta says, “it feels like a natural thing, with a balance between the amount of traditional music – which is such a big inspiration for what we do – and our own spirit and energy of five American musicians who grew up on classic rock, hip-hop, soul music, and rock ‘n’ roll.”

In the short time since they formed, Toubab Krewe has exploded in a blaze of deep percussive tribal grooves and soul-searing rock delivering a completely refreshing sound that has been unheard before.  Quaranta agrees with the idea of their music being refreshing, stating that “it is a really good word and description of us.  It makes us feel good, like we are doing something new that is important for people to hear.  It opens different perspectives on music.”

For every band there is that moment when they announce their arrival on the scene – the show that becomes their launching pad.  For Toubab Krewe it was their late-night set at Bonnaroo in 2006. 

Every year at Bonnaroo there always seems to be one band that plays “that set," the most talked about show of the weekend, the one that all 80,000 people were apparently at.  Some unknown band, one barely on anyone’s musical radar, steps on stage and steals the weekend.  Playing late Thursday night in ’06 in one of the tent stages in front of a crowd closer to 8,000, Toubab Krewe delivered that set. 

toubab-08061206.jpgGuitarist Heller recalls, “Thursday night was a tremendous rush.  I thought I was going to be nervous playing in front of so many people, but the energy from the crowd was incredible and I ended up feeling at ease even before we had begun our set.”

Toubab Krewe has built upon that performance and taken their refreshing music on the road, hitting it hard for the past couple of years.  During the summer of 2006 alone they logged over 20,000 miles on the road.  Last year they started at the most remote festival in the world, the Festival of the Desert in Essakane, Mali, Africa, before heading back stateside to again tour extensively.  They made stops at many of the major festivals throughout the year, including Langerado, Wakarusa, High Sierra, 10,000 Lakes and South by Southwest. They began this year on Jam Cruise, and toured steadily during the early part of the year before taking some time off to work on their new album.

toubab_krewe_cdcover.jpgThey have been in the studio working with Grammy winning producer Steven Heller (guitarist Heller’s father), and are looking to find more of a balance between the traditional songs they first cut their teeth with and the newer original songs they have begun composing themselves.  These new songs perfectly straddle the divide between the two very distinct styles that the band plays with.

“More than us trying to carve out a middle ground with this much traditional and this much rock, we just let if fall somewhere in between,” Quaranta explains. “Some songs hold much more to the traditional, while some are much more straight ahead rock tune."

This balance between styles and cultures is what has come to define Toubab Krewe, as guitarist Heller says.

“In a way, our music is both familiar and foreign to West Africa and America, it exists somewhere between worlds.”