Toubab Krewe: On African Shores

Much as The Grateful Dead did when they got psychedelic on the traditional folk music they grew up on, Toubab Krewe has blended the deep percussive sounds emanating from West Africa and straight ahead rock n’ roll, creating a style that is revolutionary and imaginative.  Having also played Bonnaroo twice in two years, Toubab Krewe has exceeded the normal expectations of a band that’s only been together less than two years.

The musical connection between the five members of Toubab Krewe runs deep. From their shared interest in percussion and drumming to the group trips they took to West Africa to learn the roots of their desired sound, runs as deep as the friendships they have shared.  It was during those trips that those friendships turned into Toubab Krewe.

While trying to find their way out of New York City, percussionist Luke Quaranta (with added thoughts from guitarist Drew Heller via email) checked in to discuss some items of importance with Glide.

Why don’t you start off with a brief history of the band?

Drew Heller:  Toubab Krewe has been performing together for one year and eight months.  Our individual histories as friends and musical accomplices date back much further.  Justin Perkins and myself have been performing in bands together since the 5th grade (1990).  We meet drummer Teal Brown in middle school and began playing drums in his garage sometime around 10th grade.  We linked up with percussionist Luke Quaranta and bassist David Pransky during our years together at Warren Wilson College.  We began our collective travels to West Africa in 1999, traveling during the summer months in between semesters.  Since then multiple trips to the region (Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Mali) have occurred. 

Luke Quaranta:  It has been a real organic process.  We found our bass player Dave because his sister used to dance in our art group Common Ground.  He is a self taught mandolinist and when this project came together in late 2004 he became the bass player.

You guys all had a shared interest in the West African Music and culture, is that what sparked your interest to head out and search for the source?

LQ:  Yeah, we were pretty much into the music, the drumming and West African percussion sound.  We were drumming in small groups, and that interest led us to the source which was West Africa, so we traveled to Guinea.  This led us to the string and guitar styles of the area.  While there Justin began to play the kora, which is 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 guitar, he began to really delve into that.

At what point did you realize we might have something here.  We can be a band.  When did you look at each other and say, “We have something really unique here, why don’t we go make a band?”

LQ:  That’s a good question.  There have been a few moments along the way, where we have thought, this whole style of music is incredible and we love it, and thought we could do something different that would be our own unique take on it.  We wanted to create something new and different out of such a deep tradition, bringing in all the things we have always loved about it.  During one of our trips to Africa in 2001 when we were still very much into the percussion and dance aspect of the study and Justin was just starting to get into the kora and Drew was getting into guitar, we sensed something.  There were a few different trips back to Africa that seemed to point in that direction, Drew went in 2002, and I went back in 2004 to continue with my drumming. 

DH: In 2004 when Justin and I returned from living in Bamako, Mali, is when the band Toubab Krewe began to take shape.

LQ:  Bamako is a real melting pot of styles in Mali and very rich in musical culture.  One day Drew came home and Justin was sitting on the front porch playing the Kamel-Ngoni, which is a more modern harp – maybe 50 years old.  Drew picked up his guitar and played another line, and what they played then basically evolved into Hang Tan, which is the only completely original song on our first album.  It was just a moment where they were sitting on the porch, they had been studying and immersed in that world and it just came together and hit them of a sudden 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.  It was just a moment where they realized this is going to be something, we are going to come at this from a rock set-up, but bring our own essence to it.  It has been those kinds of moments, like Bonnaroo 2005.

Those moments seem to come very fast for you as a band.  You have been a band for just a little over a year and half?

LQ: We had been together for six months when we were asked to play Bonnaroo 2005.  It was an electric response to what we were doing.  We have experienced that across the board whether it is playing to ten people or 10,000.  People are thrilled and love the music.  It is such a good feeling and it has inspired us to continue.

As such a new band how did the Bonnaroo ’05 gig come about?  There are bands that have been trying for years to get on that line-up.

LQ:  I don’t know all the specifics, but someone heard the music and really enjoyed it.  They were in the process of putting together the smaller beer tents and thought we would be great for it.  We had no idea what the response would and it ended up be great.  It was a great opportunity. 

You have played Bonnaroo in both 2005 and 2006?

LQ:  This past year we actually played Thursday at midnight.

You have such a unique sound that seems to draw people in.  It is something that does have a sense of familiarity, but at the same time, because of your African influences it is something very different.  How did you arrive at this point, was there a middle ground you set out to establish or was it more of a natural evolution?

LQ:  More than working to find a middle ground between the two, it was a real natural thing.  I think it is something we treat real precious, like the chemistry between the five of us.  It is something that finds it self.  We work hard and talk about the music and our compositions, but there is a natural balance between the amount of traditional music, which is such a big inspiration for what we do, and our own spirit and energy as five American musicians who grew up on classic rock, hip-hop, soul music, and rock ‘n’ roll.  Our creative process is very organic, just like the way the band has formed was organic.  We share friendships that have existed since before the band formed and that is very important to us, and that really fuels the energy for what we do.  More than us talking about carving out a middle ground with this much traditional music and this much rock, we just let it happen and fall somewhere in between.  Some songs hold much more to the traditional, while some are much more straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll tunes.   

Have you begun working on your next record yet?

DH:  We will begin working on our second studio album this fall.  It will hopefully be ready for release in the early spring.

LQ:  We are writing more songs.  The second album leans more towards the heavier side of things and leans more towards the original side. 

Are there any plans to have vocals or is that something you want to stay away from?

LQ:  It is not something we have had as of yet, and I don’t anticipate there being vocals on the second record.  I think as the band grows we are all open to collaboration with vocalists.

Do you have a dream collaboration?

LQ:  We have put together a dream list with everyone from Damian Marley to Willie Nelson. 

That’s not a bad list to start with.

LQ:  Because of the way the music spans many different genres simultaneously we feel there are a lot of different things that could work.

What events and influences are currently impacting you as a band the most right now?

DH:  Musically New Ancient Strings by Toumani Diabate, Led Zeppelin, and Alemayehu Eshete. On TV, The Chappelle Show.  And a couple of movies Naqoyqatsi and Latcho Drom.

Finally, where do you see the direction of your music and band going?

DH:  Although there is no planned direction or destination, we are in a constant state of change.  Everything around us influences the music.  Constant traveling, interacting, and performing seems to impact us the most.

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