Spotlight: Toubab Krewe
Photo by C. Taylor Crothers
In 2004, Justin Perkins (kora, kamel ngoni, guitar, percussion) and Drew Heller (guitar, piano, fiddle) returned from an inspirational trip studying in Mali for four months. It was “the catalyst that brought Toubab Krewe together,” says Luke Quaranta (djembe, percussion) from his Asheville, N.C. home. “Our first show was in January 2005 and it’s been nonstop since.”
Perkins, Heller and Teal Brown (drums, congas) grew up together in North Carolina, while Quaranta is originally from New York. “Justin and Drew have been friends since they were about 5 years old banging on pots and pans,” he says. Quaranta met some of his future bandmates while attending Asheville’s Warren Wilson College where they were part of a 14-person drum and dance ensemble called Common Ground that traveled to Africa together.
After several trips to Mali, Guinea and Ivory Coast from 1999 to 2004, the musicians bonded over their shared love of West African culture and traditional music. (They later met bassist/guitarist David Pransky who rounds out the quintet.)
“The interest in percussion music expanded to string, guitar, kora music…and we’ve been running with it,” Quaranta says, “discovering music from East Africa and Cuba, India and all over.”
Toubab Krewe formed around the idea of West African traditional music “mixing with the music we grew up listening to [like] rock and roll,” Quaranta says. Additionally, Django Reinhardt, reggae and dancehall, classic rock and soul “and music that came out of New York in the ‘90s—the Golden Age hip-hop stuff”—were all big influences on the band’s sound.
The musicians have always been interested in New Orleans-style and Creole music, “as well as some old-time traditions” from the South, he says. The band takes the “Krewe” part of its name from the New Orleans spelling of the word “crew,” while Toubab means “foreigner” or “not African” in Mali’s Bambara language.
“We thought it described who we were: a bunch of Americans playing West African music,” he says. “We are toubabs, but we get down. It’s West African music [seen] through the lens of American music. We’re interested in where culture and music overlap.”
This past September, the band also released TK2 on Nat Geo Records. “We spent so much time on the road we never had a chance to take much time to experiment with sound and write in the studio,” Quaranta says. “[On this record], I played djembe in a bathroom that was brick and tile and corrugated metal—it was really close to the West African aesthetic. There was a spontaneity and freshness to [our self-titled debut], and that’s what we wanted to get back to.”
The band aims to be as diverse as possible with the audiences it reaches. And all of the members feel like the festival community in the United States has embraced them. “We’ve found a home there and love the festival environment—that’s been a real core,” Quaranta says. “The music appeals to different people. Within the jamband community, we’ve had a great following and made many friends. But the music is definitely an international sound—we listen to music from all over the world.
“Our goal is to play anywhere and everywhere,” he continues, “and everyone has dreams of traveling places like India and Cuba and seeing how that affects our music. To be playing music for a living, to travel, and to meet and play music with people we’ve admired for years, is a dream come true.”
Quaranta also speaks enthusiastically of playing 2007’s Festival in the Desert in Mali because “it was a full circle moment.” Ten years prior to this, the band members were students of music from that part of the world. “And to be able to travel there now with our band not as students but as performers with the peers that were responsible for getting us into the style in the first place—folks like Toumani Diabaté, Umu Sangare and Tinariwen—felt like a real accomplishment for us,” he says.
“How did five white guys start playing African music?” Quaranta rhetorically asks. “For us, [while] studying and exploring music all over the world, musical cultures collided and came together. And something new coming out of it is as old as music—learning something that at first maybe was hard, but has become a part of me. That’s the thing about music: it’s a language that is universal.”
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