When the traditional sounds of West African percussion and drumming get together to hang out with the familiar sound of good ole’ American rock’n’roll, they will invariably be with Asheville, NC’s Toubab Krewe.
Toubab Krewe burst onto the music just over a year and half ago and in that time they have brought an entirely new and invigorating sound to our ears. Made up of five longtime friends who shared a common passion for the drumming and percussive sounds of traditional West African music, the members of Toubab Krewe made numerous trips to Africa to study this musical style that interested them so deeply. While there they studied under many of the genre’s masters, among them Lamine Soumano (who has joined the band for their current tour), soaking up the rich deep percussive sounds that emanate from that region of the world . Combining the sounds they learned in Africa with the sounds they grew up with in America, Toubab Krewe have created a wholly new sound that is garnering new fans with each new show and festival they play.
Percussionist Luke Quaranta took time discuss these things and more with Honest Tune contributing writer Tim Newby .
Honest Tune: How did you guys meet and come together?
Luke Quaranta: It is kind of a long story. Toubab Krewe members grew up in Asheville, NC. Three of our members actually grew up together. Justin Perkins (kora, kamel-ngoni) and Drew Heller (guitar) have known each other since they were six. Teal Brown (drums) met them at an early age and started playing music with them. In 1997 Teal and I met at Warren Wilson College, and we shared an interest in West African music that started with the drumming tradition. We found our bass player Dave Bransky, because his sister used to dance in our art group Common Ground, and that is how we met him for the first time. He is a self-taught mandolinist and when this project came together in late 2004 he became the bass player.
HT: And you all shared and interest in African music?
LQ: We were drumming in small groups, and that interest led us to the source which was West Africa and traveled to Guinea. The group really began to come together as Justin and Drew got involved. The four of us who were involved in 2001 took a two month trip to Guinea and the Ivory Coast. While there Justin began to play the kora, a 21 string harp. He really got focused on that. Drew was pleasantly surprised to find out how deep the guitar culture is in West Africa and instead of studying traditional instruments he really began to study the guitar; he began to delve into that.
HT: Your first album is exciting in that it sounds so different and refreshing with your unique melding of West African traditional music and American Rock ‘n’ Roll.
LQ: Justin and Drew went to Bamako for four months in 2004. It is a real melting pot of styles in Mali and rich in musical culture. One day Drew came home and Justin was sitting on the porch playing the kamel-ngoni, which is a more modern harp, maybe fifty years old. Drew picked up his guitar and played another line, and what they played basically became “Hang Tan”, the only completely original song on our first album. All the other compositions are traditional African songs arranged by us, but we named them after the traditional name or source material.
HT: With this melding of such different styles do you find that some people in the band pull a little more in one way or the other – either towards the traditional side or more to the rock side?
LQ: There is an even balance between everyone. Dave’s bass style is so different. He is a big reggae fan and he brings a lot of that essence to the bass. And that is so important to what we do, because at times we have 37 strings on stage between the kora, guitar, and the bass. So his style blends perfectly with the traditional kora or kamel-ngoni or the other guitar sound that Drew brings. Drew’s background is very diverse, he a multi-instrumentalist so he just naturally brings more than just his West African study to the guitar.
HT: Anytime you have people who play a lot of instruments I think those abilities and traits carry over from instrument to instrument. You guys have so many influences on stage that it is such a different and refreshing sound.
LQ: A lot of people have used that word refreshing, and it is really a 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.
Now I have to dig out my thesaurus and find a new word to use so I am not overusing refreshing (laughs).
HT: Have you begun work on the next album?
LQ: We are writing more songs. The second album seems to lean more toward the heavier side of things and also leans more toward the original side, but there continues to be a good mix between the traditional and original. I think that will always be the case and we look forward to traveling back to Africa and internationally and playing in many different places. We are big fans of Cuban music and much of the African music we enjoy has been inspired by both Cuban and African music. In bands like Orchestra Baobab, you can hear the influence of Cuban music.
HT: In the short time you have been around you seem to have been on the road quite a bit, besides your own headlining shows you have found time to play a number of festivals including the last two Bonnaroos.
LQ: Yeah, we are hitting the road hard. Bonnaroo was in the midst of a three month run. We have been on the road pretty much since March. We did our first run to Colorado in March. Then back out again in May and over to California, then back from the West Coast all the way to Bonnaroo, and then we turned right back around and drove to the Sierra Nevada Music Festival and then the High Sierra Festival and the Oregon County Fair. We logged 20,000 miles between May 15 and August 15. We didn’t return to Asheville for three full months. We just came back mid August to work on our new album. Then back out on the road. We did moe.down and the Chicago Music Festival.
HT: Were you able to stay dry at moe.down with all the rain they got that weekend?
LQ: We had one of the best slots of the weekend both in time and weather wise. We played fours sets on Friday. We played short sets in between the headliners. It was great, it was good vibe. We got to run through the whole gamut of our repertoire. We got to play some stuff we hadn’t played in a while and get to be experimental. People loved it, they came back after each headlining set. Before we came back on before our late night set, people were already in front of the stage waiting for us to go back on.
HT: What are your plans for the upcoming months?
LQ: Going into the fall we are heading into Boulder, CO and then San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Missoula, and then an arts festival in Bozeman. Then we head back to play our hometown of Asheville, then some dates in the Southeast. We then fly out to Vegoose, we just got any offer for that. Then Halloween in New York City, followed by something in Washington D.C. That is followed up by some Northeast dates. That takes us through Thanksgiving and than a couple more random dates. Then back into the studio. We expect a CD release sometime in the spring.