A Tale of Two Continents with Toubab Krewes Justin Perkins
The allure of great music sometimes has very mysterious origins. In the case of Asheville, North Carolina’s Toubab Krewe, their birth was quite simple. Take five talented local musicians, give them a glimpse of profound ancient music, send the bulk of the band on a lifechanging voyage to another continent and, lo and behold, you’ve got a mixture of rock, jam, surf, hip-hop and West African dance music. Through instinct, diligence and perservence, this American case study finds a magical way to blend rock n’ wave influences as diverse as Led Zeppelin and Dick Dale with music from obscure cultural hot beds like Mali that appear to cradle all Western music. Their debut self-titled album is an essential collection of fresh material gleaned from a traditional foundation.
Toubab Krewe has achieved criticial acclaim and a growing fanbase expanded from their breakout performance at Bonnaroo 2005 to their recent gig at Vegoose, Halloween 2006. Next month finds the band with a coveted spot at Essakane, Mali’s Festival of the Desertan astounding achievement when one considers that Robert Plant and Dave Matthews spent years shed-circulating before an invitation was granted. Such is the loyalty of the formidable West African music society towards its talented students. Jambands.com visited with Justin Perkins who plays kora, ngoni, guitar and percussion on the eve of their year end homecoming gigs in North Carolina to discuss the band’s origins, and their cultural evolution into a rock n’ soul reggae jam band with West African roots that plant them astride two very different continents.
RR: You’ve found a new way to mix rock n’ roll with West African influences.
JP: Rightand how they work together so easily, in my opinion, the history of rock n’ roll and a lot of American music, in general. We mix the West African styles with rock n’ roll but also surf music, jazz and hip hop. To me it works together so well, I guess, because when I look at a lot of American styles and where they come from most of their origins are West African. When Drew and I started doing it, we had been playing in a band for a long period of timeeight yearscalled Count Clovis and also, for a while, had a group called Common Ground, which Luke [Quaranta, percussionist] and Teal [Brown, drums] were a part of and that was strictly West African percussion and dance.
Upon our first trip to West Africa in 2001, coming back, Drew [Heller, guitarist] and I started our first foray into starting to mix those two things and it worked really well in our little instrumental trio. When we put Toubab Krewe together, it was effortless and jelled so easily. It is hard to say why exactly but I guess due to a lot of the origins of rock n’ roll and such things as jazz and hip hopthat feel that comes from West African music is so present, anyway.
RR: Obviously, Asheville, North Carolina isn’t known for West African music. How did you get into that specific area to begin with and how did you manage to stay in that part of the continent to solidify that influence?
JP: I’ve played a drum set my entire life since I was a little kid so it is my first and probably main instrument. Somebody gave me a jibba when I was 15 or 16. I had been to festivals and heard drum circles and things like that but definitely knew that there was a lot more to it than sitting around a campfire, banging away with a bunch of other people. [Author’s Note: not that there’s anything wrong with that.] I got introduced to a man from Asheville named Gordon Ray who makes drums and he was the first person who let me hear West African musicpercussion music from Guinea.
I remember the first time I heard it one night at his house. Something just hit me so hard, deep down in my gut that I had never felt before but had always wanted to and had been kind of searching forthat was my first exposure to it; I was probably about 16 and I just fell in love with it. I’ve been obsessed with it ever since.
In regards to getting to go over there, my first trip, luckily, I had been working at a bakery for a long time and my boss was so cool, knew that I was a musician and that comes before everything else in my life for the most part. I just had a real flexible boss and I was able to take a couple months off and still have a job when I got back. We were just doing what it takes to further ourselves as musicians by taking those steps to make the journey and trip over to Africa.
RR: Did you have contacts over there before you took your trip to Africa?
JP: Yeah, Teal and Luke had gone in 1999 to Guinea for a month with some friends and lived with a man named Koungbanan Condho is the director of percussion for Guinea. We stayed at his house with his family for a month. Through another friend that Luke knewa man named Madou Dembele who had lived in New York for a long time and is from the Ivory Coastwe flew and stayed for a month with his family in the Ivory Coast.
While we were there, we met Lamine Soumano who became my kora teacher and Drew’s guitar teacher. He lives between Bamako, Mali and the Ivory Coast. He is from Mali but spends his time in both places. That’s how we came into contact with Lamine and how Drew and I ended up in Mali in 2004.
RR: How were you introduced to Vieux Kantthe kamel ngoni instrumentalist, who you have described as “the greatest musical influence of your life?”
JP: In Mali in 2004, we had been in Bamako for about a week at that pointthe beginning of Juneand went to a Kabiniakitoncert one night in this nice big theatre. He is renowned as the best kora player in the world. It was a concert with some of his band along with two Europeans playing with him. Vieux Kantame out on stage and played. I was just beside myself; I had never seen anything like that before in my life.
About a week later, we out on a Friday night going to some bars and Vieux’s band was playing at this bar so I was just shook up because it was all electrified, really heavy and rockin’ out. When he was done, I approached him and asked him if he’d be interested in teaching. He came over a few days later and started. He’s just a complete genius at what he did with the instrument he played. Plus, he’s blind. He took the ngoni, put twelve strings on it and just did stuff that no one has ever done before.
RR: Lamine Soumano came over to the States and sat in with you on a few occasions, including a November date at Nectar’s in Burlington with Mike Gordon.
JP: Right, Lamine Soumano, my kora teacher and Drew’s guitar teacher who we lived with in Mali. He played around five or six songs with us. He’d been on tour with us for a month and he actually played with us in Brooklyn a few nights ago before leaving on Sunday to go back to Mali.
RR: How did the Brooklyn show work out for Toubab Krewe?
JP: They went really well. Unfortunately, it was about ten degrees outside so that put a damper on it but it was our first show in Brooklyn and a lot of people came out. It was a lot of fun. We played real well.
RR: How did you get Mike Gordon to sit in with the band in Burlington?
JP: First contact with Mike was because he was interested in the kora; someone had given him a kora. Finally, he got in touch with me and just wanted to talk a little bit about it. He came to that show last year that he liked so much [in Burlington] and we talked a little bit and here and there since then. I just called and asked if he’d be interested in sitting in, playing a song and he said he would love to. He popped in, played two songs and it was a lot of fun having two bass players and Lamine on stage all at one time. It was a nice contrast to hear how Mike plays the bass as opposed to how Dave [Pransky] plays the bass. It sounded real nice.
RR: Let’s go back to your switch from drumming as your lone, primary instrument to the kora. When did this take place? How do the instruments differ?
JP: I started playing kora in 2001. The kora is a twenty-one string; the kamel ngonia is a twelve-string and a different harp. They play the kora throughout West Africa. The kamel ngonia is strictly played in the south of Mali. I got introduced to the ngonia in 2004.
RR: Let me clarify something else for our readers. On the album, “Mali Sadja” and “Salimou” would be a fine example of Justin Perkins playing the twenty-one string.
JP: Yeah, those are the two kora songs.
RR: What was the influence of Common Ground on Toubab Krewe? Obviously, there have been some major crossover elements from one group to the other.
JP: It’s definitely the thing that got us goingthe huge spark and interest in West African music. We went over there in 2001 as Common Groundabout fourteen of us for a few months to learn drums and dance. It was the first real glimpse of the melodic style of the music as opposed to [only the] drums. That’s when Drew and I became hooked. I stopped; I pretty much put the drums down in 2001 and devoted more time to the kora.
Drew and I have known each other our whole lives and played instrumental music in a trio for about eight years. Drew played keys and guitar, I had a drum set and we had a bass player. It’s really a combination of the twomixing that West African culture with every other style that Drew and I played our whole lives before we got into that.
RR: Did you play any gigs in West Africa?
JP: We haven’t really fully played as Toubab Krewe over there. As Common Ground, we played but at a party at a house where we stayed. Drew and I played at some clubs when we were in Bamako and at weddings. Toubab Krewe is going back to Africa on January 5 to play Mali’s Festival of the Desert. Are you familiar with that?
RR: I am. That leads to my next question. Robert Plant played at that festival a few years ago with a group of African and European musicians, including his son, Logan. I’ve noticed the influence of both Plant and Jimmy Page on the sound of Toubab Kreweespecially their work together in the 1990s. Has that comparison been brought up to you in the past? Is that a conscious direction?
JP: Yeah, well, definitely. All of us in the band are huge Led Zeppelin fans but Drew and I have always played different Zeppelin songs throughout our lives. The originality and that edge that Led Zeppelin brings are important. It’s definitely not a conscious thing when it’s happening but I guess it is so embedded deep down that it comes out.
RR: For example, the “Bani” riff has a sort of trance-like feel similar to some of Page’s work on Physical Graffiti and _Presence_perhaps, an updated take on that work. You play a bird-like string sound in one passage that I’d like to describe.
JP: Yeah, squeaking on the strings.
RR: How do you play that?
JP: It’s just spitting on your hand and going up and down on the strings. (laughter) That’s all Vieux Kantsquo;s original ideas. He was able toyou know how when you get a harmonic out of a guitar?
JP: Vieux could probably get five or six harmonics out of each string on the kamel ngoni. The kamel ngoni is a pentatonic instrument so it’s only got a five-note scale and it’s like the black keys on a piano. Vieux found a way to get all of the harmonics out and be able to play outside of a pentatonic scale on the instrument so it’s that kind of genius revolutionary approach to it that has definitely influenced me so much. It shows you that you can do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter as long as one has the patienceespecially, [Vieux] being blind, it’s such a huge thing.
RR: What are the strings on a kora or kamel ngoni? I suppose you’re not running down to the local West African guitar shop to find replacements.
JP: As far as replacement stringsit’s just fishing wire. The bass strings are probably around 200, 250-pound test wires, which you use for shark fishing. The higher strings are 80-pound tests and there’s a little bit in between there.
RR: And the body is made out of a half gourd?
JP: Yeah, the gourd is cut in half with a piece of skin put over it with a cane neck that goes up to the middlejust a piece of wood. I guess the ngoni has a cane neck.
RR: Are the skins different on each instrument?
JP: On the ngoni, it’s a goat skin. On the kora, it’s a cow skin or a calf skin.
RR: Back to Page and Plant. I’ve studied their extensive world travels and their philosophies were altered quite a bit by contact with African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Asian and Brazilian cultures. Those encounters fueled their current philanthropyespecially Page’s recent work with the ABC Trust for Brazil. Has your West African influences affected your Western commercial ideals? How do you define your success? Is it in artistic terms? Critical acclaim? Is it something on a deeper spiritual level? Where do you see this road leading the band in the future?
JP: That’s a very good question. How to define(long pause)I guess the bottom line for us is playing the best music that we can. It’s great to see people respond to it in the way they do but as far as how toI have to think about that for a second (long pause); I have a thousand things in my head that I’m trying to say right now. It involves a lot of other people. It was a treat to have Lamine [Soumano] here for a month and see how things like that can be worked in. As far as the future, the creative level, doing what we’re doing right now, you want the momentum to keep going and to make a living out of it but I guess, like I said, to play the best music that we can and be pure about it and not leave anything out or have inhibitions about anything. It’s interesting. It’s something that is unspoken in the group. I guess it’s talked about a little bit but it’s just something that you know where you’re going to go and you know where it’s going to end up and what it’s going to be like ten years from now in that moment when you’re playing. I don’t know. That’s a very good question. I’ve never been asked that before.
RR: The songs on the debut albumexcept for “Hang Tan”are traditional arrangements.
JP: Yeah, I guess traditional in the sense that the song itself like “Salimou” or “Djarabi” is a song that they’ve been playing over there for who knows how longvery old songs. The melody line, itself, is the most traditional part of the song. As far as accompaniment, everyone has their own take on it. The source material where it’s drawn from is traditional, I suppose. Drew and I learned from Lamine, his style and his approach to playing “Djarabi,” “Bani,” or “Salimou.” It’s kind of a broad term saying traditional because everyone over there plays those songs. Everyone has a different take on it. The melody is the most traditional part because it’s what makes the song distinct.
RR: Here’s another way to ask my prior question. Take the Stones. They began playing Chicago blues with a strong mix of Chuck Berry before completely inventing their own sound. Have you envisioned where you want your sound to go?
JP: Yeah, O.K. That’s actually something we’ve been talking about a little bit. The next CD that is being worked on doesn’t have so many traditional tunes. There’s a lot more originals on there. It’s still, I think no matter how far in the future we go or how many originals may be on an albumI guess, eventually, it’ll be all originals, I supposebut for me, personally, when I look at a song like “Djarabi,” we’ve taken a song that people have already played before but it’s not necessarily a cover song. I don’t think that will ever be out of our music because it’s such a heavy influence and a unique, distinct part of the sound that we have. It is in the direction of trading all originals but I don’t think it is ever going to completely take away that aspect of reworking a Nambian song. It’s a huge influence and source.
RR: As an individual musician or as a band, are you considering other influences?
JP: We consider all influenceswhatever pops out. It just gets worked on and we go with it. [For example] Drew’s a huge Django Reinhardt fan and we messed around with some heavy gypsy waltzes but also, that is something that we try to be true to as something comes up. Everything is definitely welcome.
RR: I like the last forty odd seconds of “Bamana Niya”almost like a surreal, ambient dirge or a portent of new Toubab Krewe music. It’s a beautiful passage. When you’re on stage, do you hit a moment where you realize the future sound?
JP: The Bamana are the most predominant ethnic group in Mali. Bamana Niya means “here in Bamana country.” Yeah, the spontaneity on stage and just following ityou definitely get glimpses of where the music can be taken with the evolution and development of a song.
RR: Is there a lead instrument or is Toubab Krewe a five-headed beast?
JP: Drew takes a lot of that role in creating that soundscape with his guitar. If it is any one person, it would definitely be Drew because that is a big part of what he doescreating those layers, open it up and create that soundscape. We’re all conscious of it when it’s going on but Drew takes the initiative in that.
RR: Toubab means foreigner, right?
JP: In West African, yes.
RR: You’re a foreigner over there. When you come back to the States, do you have an identity crisis or a sense of culture shock that makes you a foreigner here?
JP: That definitely happens immediately upon arrival back in the States. It’s the reentry and it’s such a vastly different place than West Africaespecially the situations that we’ve been in a lot of the times, being in extremely poor places or sketchy places. I definitely get more culture shock coming back. You get it when you go over there but coming backyou see the way life is in West Africa and all the people are poor and they have so much pride and they hold their head up so high. They are so proud of who they are and their culture. You come back to America and it’s a littleI don’t want to say empty because America’s a great place and I’m glad that I was born here but it’s just how America is and what people’s priorities are a lot of times.
RR: How is music considered in West Africa as opposed to America?
JP: Pop music takes so many different roles in Africa because it’s such an integral part of everybody’s life and it’s around you everyday, all the time. Plus, the people that we learned from are what you’d call a greo or jail. In West Africa, you have the caste system in most places. The greos in history are the ones who were the historians of the culture. They don’t write anything down over there; they relate the culture through song and praise. Lamine Soumano goes back generations and generations and generations and it is in your family a long, long, long time. It’s what you do. Music has an interesting place in culture over there because of that. You see it around you all the time at weddings, baptisms, out in the streets, in clubs, everywhere. You’ve got pop stars over there but they’re not gods that people worship just because of their role in music and the role of the greo. When you get back over here, music loses a lot of the depthnot with everybody, of course, but when you see the major pop music and mainstream stuff, it is just empty.
RR: I know that word Krewe’ is an ambiguous nod to the city of New Orleans. How important is New Orleans to the Toubab Krewe sound?
JP: It’s extremely important. The history and culture of New Orleans is the thickest and richest in this country. New Orleans was such a huge portal to so much music that came into this countrywhether it be music, people or food, it is such a rich place and it’s a shame to know the situation of that place, right now. We’ll be there in the spring.
RR: You end up the year with two North Carolina homecoming gigs [12/22-Charlotte-Neighborhood Theatre and 12/23-Asheville-Orange Peel]. That’s sort of a great cap to a great year for the band.
JP: It’s always exciting to come home and it’ll be fun to be in Charlotte and, also, Asheville because it is the holidays and we all, for the most part, are locals. We see people that we have not seen from high schooljust the amount of support that we get from our hometowns is a beautiful thing. It’s been a hell of a year and it’s nice to end it at home with a bunch of people that you’ve known and liked your whole life but you don’t really get a chance to see anymore. It’s a nice, sweet end to it.
RR: How did Toubab Krewe get invited to Mali’s Festival of the Desert?
JP: They approached us before we approached them. I’m not sure how they heard of us. Obviously, we’ve got teachers and friends over there who were connected with those folks. It’s probably a combination of both. It is David’s [Pransky, bassist] first trip to Africa so we’re really excited for him. It is very exciting; I can’t wait.
RR: Will you be jamming with other musicians at the festival?
JP: Oh, yeahwhether it be on stage, hopefully I’m sure it will be but just getting to sit around and play and that’s another thingwhat’s exciting about being over there is people that you’ve looked up to for so long, adoring their music and ability and you can go over there and kick it and show up with them on their porch and play music. That’s what I was sayingeven the top stars over there are just people. You can go over their house, have tea with them and play music and it’s no big deal.
_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com