IS THERE A KORA IN THE HOUSE? Toubab Krewe

 

The North Carolina quintet’s rock-West African
musical hybrid is good for the mind – and hips.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

It’s quite a homecoming, that’s for sure: fresh off a string
of high-profile summer festival dates, Asheville,
NC, band Toubab Krewe is onstage
at the annual outdoor Bele Chere music and arts fest, performing in front of
what has to be several thousand revelers. The sun is slowly setting, casting a
pinkish glow laced with lysergic strobes of yellow, and from my vantage point –
perched to the left of and slightly behind the performers, observing from the
second level of the adjacent parking deck – it all looks like some surreal
movie scene, bouncing revelers extended out from the stage and up the avenue for
as far as the eye can see, as the group churns out its heady, miasmic brand of polyglot
instrumental rock.

 

In 2010, scores of bands are dipping into exotic world music
waters; some – Afro-beat kings Antibalas; Benga rockers Extra Golden; Cambodian
psychedelicists Dengue Fever – have gone for total immersion, often with
astonishing results. Add Toubab Krewe to that list of luminaries. Their brainy-yet-danceable
stew of dubby West African rock, vintage surf, New Orleans funk and more has for the past
five years been hitting the sweet spot for larger and larger audiences while
earning the respect of some of the acknowledged masters.

 

“It was a thrill to get to see some of these artists that
we’d been following for so long, like Toumani Diabate and Tinariwen and
Bassekou Kouyati,” says percussionist Luke Quaranta, of a 2007 pilgrimage to
Mali which saw the Krewe – Quaranta, guitarist Drew Heller, guitar/kora/kamel
ngoni player Justin Perkins, bassist David Pransky, drummer Teal Brown – perform
at the legendary Festival In the Desert. “And the response to our performance
was great! I got the impression from talking to them that they really
appreciated the creative license we’re exercising with the traditional music.”

 

Creative license being the operative term. Toubab Krewe’s self-titled 2005 debut comprised
mostly reworked African standards, but by the time of 2008’s Live At the Orange Peel the band was
delving deep into dub, hip-hop, surf and psych. And with the new TK2, released this week via National Geographic imprint Nat Geo
Music (home to Balkan Beat Box, DePedro, Forro In The Dark and Grupo Fantasma),
the band stretches out even further, incorporating additional instrumentation
and seeking out new textures. It’s not all that often, for example, that you’ll
hear an arrangement pitting a grand piano against a kora – “Afro-baroque,”
anyone? – although longtime fans will find no shortage of the group’s full-on brand
of jamming, either. From the bluesy, slide guitar-laced “Sirens” (which
suggests a cross between Ali Farka Toure, Dick Dale and Sonny Boy Williamson)
to the kinetic, almost punkish (and delightfully titled) “Nirvana the Buffalo”
to the nearly 11-minute trance/drone closing number “One Night Watkins,” TK2 is the sound of a group utterly
confident in its musical abilities yet firmly intent upon pushing itself to the
limits.

 

With a steadily-rising national profile for the Krewe, more
than one observer has floated the notion that this might be the Tarheel State’s most visionary outfit. Locally,
the group is so popular, packing the clubs (or streets) every time it plays,
that an Asheville
brewery crafted a beer in its honor: a portion of the proceeds of sales of “Toubab
Brewe” goes to the band’s non-profit organization of choice, Instruments 4
Africa. In the meantime, this past June, a couple of nights after seeing Toubab
Krewe put on a sold-out performance at Asheville’s Orange Peel club (this was
about a month before the outdoor show described above), I sat down with
percussionist Quaranta to talk about that gig, about the new album, and about
the band’s trajectory to date.

 

***

 

BLURT: That was quite a marathon the band pulled
the other night in Asheville…

LUKE QUARANTA: Yeah, I remember looking at my watch and we’d
been playing for two hours straight – and then we did a couple of encores! That
show, we really stretched out – and then having Rayna [Gellert; fiddle player
for Uncle Earl who also guested on the Live
at the Orange Peel
CD] and Roosevelt [Collier; a/k/a “The Dr.”, sacred
steel player for the Lee Boys] onstage stretched the music as well!

     We had played
with The Dr. before, in Jacksonville,
it was a lot of fun and he sat in for a few songs. And then we had this Florida run in May,
between JazzFest and the Hangout Fest, and asked him to come out, so he played
about four shows with us on that run. It was a blast, man – like I said, the
music just stretched. So for this hometown show, we knew he would fit in great,
and that we were also going to have Rayna as well as Adama [Dembele;
percussionist for The Afromotive] come up for a few songs. Adama is originally
from the Ivory Coast.
He’s the younger brother of one of my first djembe teachers.

 

Collaborations
between Toubab Krewe and other musicians probably take on a different tone from
just the standard grab-your-guitar-and-get-up-and-jam approach. What are some
of the more memorable ones you’ve had?

Well, for me, whenever we have an opportunity to have
someone who’s from West Africa onstage, I know
it’s going to go really well. So much of the sound is echoing stuff they’ve
grown up with that I know they are going to feel real comfortable. An artist
who grew up in that tradition is going to fit in moreso than, like you suggest,
western musicians for whom it might be more difficult if they’d never really
played  or listened to the West African
tradition. So we’ve had a lot of people onstage, like Ismael Kouyate, who
actually is now in the Fela! Broadway
play; he sat in and sang with us at the Bowery Ballroom one time. There’s also
a guy named Boubacar Diabate, who lives in Boston, he’s from Mali; we’ve had
some great shows with him where he’s been able to sit in and sing some of the
traditionals like “Djarabi” [from the Toubab
Krewe
album] – he’s got a great voice, and we actually did some stuff in the
studio with him, so I hope we can release that.

     When we have
vocalists from Guinea or Mali
who know some of the traditional songs it’s fun to have them sit in because
they can sing and know all the lyrics to songs that we are playing as
instrumentals. And then of course Umar Bin Hassan, from the Last Poets, was
fun. That was a cool collaboration.

 

How did you meet him?

We met him in Ohio.
We were doing a show in Columbus,
opening up for Toots & the Maytals, and he just kinda popped in the side
door and was sitting side stage watching Justin during soundcheck. I recognized
him, so I went up to him afterwards and just started rapping. He had all these
questions about the Kora, about the music, and after we’d met and hung he told
me that he’d been outside and heard these sounds, so – “I’ll go check out to
see what these brothers are doing.” Then he came in and was shocked it was a
bunch of white guys doing that music! He was really fascinated by what we were
doing and we just started vibing. Later we hooked up in Baltimore
and just became friends, so we invited him down to Asheville for that New Year’s run [2007-08, subsequently
documented on the Live at the Orange Peel CD].

 

I understand that
you’d actually already been recording some new studio material, but after
listening to the live tapes more closely, you decided to put them out?

We had done a few recording session over that year [2007];
our first record came out in ’05 and we had cut that when we were just together
about four months together as a band. So then we had a couple of years of
touring and a good amount of material that we wanted to get out there. We had
cut versions of new songs that we’d been performing live, and listening back it
sounded fine, but it maybe sounded like we were just trying to get “versions”
of already fully-realized songs. For us, it made us realize that we really
wanted to go in the studio and have a different experience versus going in
there with fully-formed ideas.

    So in the process
of mixing those tracks in the studio we listened back to the two nights at the
Orange Peel we thought, “This sounds great. This is this batch of songs, recorded in our environment, in front of our home crowd, a lot of energy, a lot
of improvisation within the songs that maybe we didn’t capture in the studio
because this was more on the fly and in the moment. There was really no
intention of releasing that stuff [but after] we went back, thought some of
those songs sounded great – “Jimi’s Juju,” with Umar, was really good – we decided
to do the Orange Peel CD. It
definitely captured the essence of our band at that time and our sound.

 

What about the new
album?

That also inspired us to do the studio thing differently.
After that whole experience we knew we wanted to approach the studio in a
different way. Starting in last September we spent six weeks at Echo Mountain
here in Asheville.
We started from scratch. We’d been touring real heavily and also writing songs,
and we hadn’t pressed “pause” – continuing to write music at soundcheck,
exploring ideas while touring. So when we stopped and went into the studio, we
brought in all this instrumentation we’d never used but that people do play in
the group – like congas, 12-string acoustic guitar, fiddle, grand piano, organ
and Leslie, even a Moog Voyager. We really branched out with this
instrumentation and spent the first week just experimenting with sound and
jamming.

    Echo Mountain
is great, with these old analog boards, so we cut everything to tape and had a
really great, warm sound. Then we went back, listening and picking out ideas
that had come up, and writing music from those stream of consciousness jamming
sessions. It was a different process for us, but I think we got some great
tunes and captured them very close to the moment of inspiration, the seed of
the idea, rather than being out on the road for six months and then cutting it
in the studio. A lot of things formed during the actual takes we used, so
that’s the process we were wanting.

      We spent all fall mixing the album, taking
our time, and [then] shopping it around.

 

I can’t imagine any
label seeing Toubab Krewe perform live and not wanting you on their roster.

It’s funny: like you say, we’ve always been that band where
the feedback is, “Oh, you’ve gotta see them live!” Like the record doesn’t do
us justice – that’s been the pitch people give their friends. What I like is
that we’ve now done a record that we’re not even executing live – we don’t even
have all the instrumentation onstage; we’re not touring with a Leslie and a
grand piano and a Moog. But we’re moving towards that – we’re adding to our
stage setup as we can. But it’s cool to have a record now that actually can’t
be represented fully on stage and that people can actually get into [on its own
terms] because it’s studio specific. I hope we’ll have a piece of work that
people will really enjoy. It will be exciting for people to hear it.

 

When you tell people
you’re from the mountains of North
Carolina, do they go, “Uhh, really?” Do you get that level of surprise often?

Yeah, a lot! [laughs]
The standard interview question over the past five years has always been, “So
how did five white guys from Asheville,
North Carolina, start playing
West African music?” We get that a lot. So we just tell them our story, our
background. But I don’t know if there really are any other groups that have a fusion exactly like what we’re
doing. Certainly there are other people around the country playing traditional
West African drum and dance music, and there’s a lot of Afro-beat bands,
obviously, with the explosion of Fela Kuti in the last 10 years or so. And even
bands that are partly doing Afro-beat, like the Budos Band out of New York City. Then
there’s Extra Golden, who are a little more of a highlife and Afro-beat mix.

   Our thing is more
of a Mali via New Orleans by way of Asheville kind of thing. We were so inspired
by being in New Orleans
a lot the last four or five years for JazzFest and other times. There’s a lot
of ingredients in what we do, and at the same time there’s not really a
formula. Just yesterday we were cutting this tune called “Cluck Old Hen,” which
is a traditional Appalachian folk kind of tune.

 

You did that at the
end of the show Saturday night. That doesn’t sound like a West African song
title to me…

Definitely a western North
Carolina tune! [laughs]
Justin’s been singing it. So we went in there the other day and cut it with
Rayna and Roosevelt so we can maybe have it to use as bonus material. We cut a
video for it because it’s short, under three minutes, and it’s also got vocals,
so that’s something we can pitch to more mainstream outlets.

    You know, it’s a
little finicky with instrumentals. We’ve gotten some feedback from the late
night television shows, and even people who are our fans over at late night
shows, saying, “You know, we love it, I really want to pitch it to my music
director, but I can’t promise anything because we usually don’t book
instrumental acts.” Not that that’s one of my main goals, to play a late night
show. But you know… So because that song’s the length of a single, it’s got
vocals, we can pitch it to some other places and maybe turn different people
onto the band – to what we also do instrumentally.

 

The timing right now
isn’t too bad. There’s certain an increased awareness of West African music in
2010 that wasn’t there in 2005 when you started out. There are tons of CD
reissues and compilations coming out, for example. And as you mentioned some of
the bands in little pockets around the U.S. – they’re simpatico with what
you are doing. You’re not particularly obscure.

Yeah, and one of our goals has always been to make West
African music more accessible to fans here. So through what we’re doing,
continuing to be out there and performing, it also draws attention to some of
the artists that we love.

 

When you formed, was
it a conscious thing of, “Let’s put these types of sounds together?” Or did the
sound evolve or coalesce for you?

I think it was more like when a window of opportunity forms
when people come together to play music. Because we’d all kind of already
played together, but in different settings. Drew and Justin grew up together
and then played in a trio for almost a decade around here and put out a couple
of records. Then Teal played with Drew in college in a jazz group, and Teal and
I met in ’97 and played together in a West African style drumming group called
Common Ground. Our bass player, David, his sister was also in that group so
we’d play with him occasionally. So there were all these connections.

   Justin and Drew
traveled to Africa in 2001 together. Then things
really coalesced, I think, after Justin and Drew went to Bamako, Mali,
in 2004 for an extended trip, about four months. And before that we’d traveled
to Guinea and the Ivory Coast.
I think part of that trip [was] not only learning some of the traditional music
but also seeing it out on the streets and in clubs and really seeing in Bamako this contemporary
edge that was almost rock ‘n’ roll in spirit. You’d see a full drum kit,
electric guitars and bass. I think they were really inspired by that, so by the
time they got back there was this sense that our view of traditional music [in
America] is so limited, so “Putumayo-ish” and put-in-a-box.

       There’s a real
beauty in how it’s passed down from generation to generation [in Africa] and
how each generation is inspired by music from all over the world, and how in
turn it changes with their own take on the music – the contemporary and the
traditional are always in this relationship, in other words, and not separate.
So I think they just came back inspired by that and it was natural for us to
come together since we’d all been playing together for several years in
different ways.

      We just sat
down, and it wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice to integrate certain
influences – it was just, let’s sit down
and play.
A lot of what first came out was reworked traditionals. The first
album, 9 out of 10 songs there are traditionals and have their traditional
titles. But we felt free to take creative license, staying true to the
traditional form but letting it fly. And that’s how other things came into play
and formed our own sound, bringing in rock, blues, hip-hop, anything we grew up
with.

 

You have that song
“Buncombe to Badala” that brings in the pervasive surf guitar element – to me,
as a surf fan, the hybrid struck me as instantly familiar, but on a different level,
because I’d never heard it done quite that way before. It’s reminiscent of when
Ali Farka Toure started to get popular in America and how exotic yet natural
he sounded to blues fans – the shock of recognition. “Really? He’s doing delta
blues but he’s from Africa?”

It fascinates me the way all the intersections, all the
wrapping, all the back and forth, works. Even that two different styles can
coexist like that.

 

When you went over to
the Festival In the Desert in Essakane,
Mali in 2007,
how were you perceived? As interlopers, or an anomaly, or –

Well, it was such a thrill to be over there. And we had the
opportunity to get really good feedback from our teachers and get to see some
of these artists that we’d been following for so long, like Toumani Diabate and
Tinariwen and Bassekou Kouyati. And the response to our performance was great –
although it was kinda hard to tell from body language! The majority of the
audience was head wrapped so all you saw was the eyes! Plus, I think culturally
the response is a little more understated in generally. Not like a clap-after-every
song kind of thing. But we got really good feedback from the people we talked
to – Bassekou Kouyati and his whole band were at the side of the stage watching
us the whole time.

     So yeah, I
thought the response was great. In terms of an “anomaly,” maybe people were
taken aback at first, but the feedback we got was positive in every way. I got
the impression from talking to them and our teachers that they really
appreciated the creative license we’re exercising with the traditional music.
If we had been playing stuff really strictly the way we learned it and not
venturing much, it would probably be more of the other attitude. So they see
what we are doing and they encourage us to keep doing it, to keep pushing the
envelope and keep exploring the spaces in between worlds and cultures.

 

In other words if
you’d just gotten up there and tried to replicate traditional sounds it might
have come off as less genuine.

I think so. That’s the kind of feedback we’ve gotten. We’re
encouraged to keep doing what we’re doing, and they really love how we are
representing the sounds that are coming through us.

 

Does it surprise you
at the size of the crowds you draw when you appear in Asheville? I’ve seen you play multiple times,
and pretty much the entire local demographic is represented at Toubab shows,
young and old, across-the-board musical tastes.

It’s always special playing for the hometown crowd. I’ll
tell you, seeing all the faces Saturday night at the Orange Peel, I think how
it was like for me, like when I was 18 or 19 and just getting to college and
discovering an artist for the first time. And thinking how that must be like
now for a 16 or 17 or 18 year old to discover our music. That’s such a rich
time, the way your world view is changing and growing when you’re at that age.
For people to discover our band at that age, that’s a really exciting thing,
because if you start digging there’s no telling where you’ll wind up! [laughs] Exploring the roots of what we
are doing, you could find yourself in New Orleans,
you could find yourself in West Africa – so
it’s exciting to see all these faces out there and thinking how maybe we’ll
continue to gain fans in this area, you know?

       I’ve been
thrilled at how diverse our fan base has gotten. Sometimes there’s a scene, and
a scene catches on, like when an electronica or DJ scene catches on, and they
are going from bedrooms to selling out thousand-count rooms every night in
under six months. I don’t think that’s happening to us – I feel like ours has
been more of a steady growth of our fan base because we do draw so many
different types of people and it’s not just one type of scene. And we find that
all over the country at our shows. I hope we can continue to bring in middle
age people and young people and build a multifaceted fanbase wherever we go.

 

How many people were
at your very first gig? Do you remember that show?

Oh man. Our first
gig was at Zambra here in Asheville.

 

Your first gig was at
the tapas bar?!?

Yeah, the five of us first played together at David’s
sister’s wedding, in the summer of 2004. We were all there so we wound up
getting onstage and playing. This was about a week before Justin and Drew went
to Mali
in ’04. Then when they came back in late ’04, our first show was at Zambra. There
were maybe 15 people who were not just there eating. But it was funny: word
spread, and by the time we were done playing, maybe another 25 or 30 people had
crammed into that little space.

 

You need to have a
Toubab Tapas to go with the Toubab Brew.

Yeah! [laughs]

 

 [Photo Credit: C. Taylor Crothers]

 

 

 

 

 

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