Toubab Krewe: From Mali To Main Street
Traditional African music has periodically held sway over the hearts and minds of Western artists: Peter Gabriel formed WOMAD and the Real World Studios to expose a different culture to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Kanh and Youssou N’dour, Paul Simon heard the Boyoyo Boys and followed their irresistible siren call to South Africa and the Ivy leaguers of Vampire Weekend become a hipster sensation by approaching African pop with an indie rock mentality. For Toubab Krewe, their fascination and obsession with African music has spurred them on and motivated them to make multiple trips to West Africa, namely Mali, Guinea and the Ivory Coast, to study and learn from those musicians who view the music as a culture and birthright, not a genre.
In “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost discourses eloquently about the benefits of taking the less-trodden path, implying that the obstacles encountered along the way will make all the difference. If ever there was a band that embodied Frost’s philosophy, it is Toubab Krewe. Based in Asheville, North Carolina, Toubab Krewe channel the music of West Africa with the facility of native born musicians. The band bonded over a shared love and infatuation with West African rhythms and beats of the Dark Continent, coming together when Justin Perkins and Drew Heller paired up with Common Ground drummers Teal Brown and Luke Quaranta. Bassist David Pransky crossed path with them through his sister, who went to school with the pre-Krewe members, and ultimately the band gelled.
On Toubab Krewe’s most recent trip to New York City for a date at Sullivan Hall, drummer Teal Brown and bassist David Pransky had time before the show to talk about their travels throughout West Africa and how the experiences have transformed the band. With the Josh Dion Band running through their sound check in the main room, Brown and Pransky sat comfortably in the venue’s small equipment room; Pransky seeming at home while sipping a glass of red wine amidst the stashed guitar and drum cases.
The Krewe’s study of West African music is hardly academic. Individually and in groups, they have traveled to live indigenously, absorbing the culture as well as the music. “The last time the whole band went [to Africa] was in 2007,” relates Brown. “We’ve made separate trips over the last ten years and this one culminated with us playing at the Festival du Desert in Mali, the worlds most remote festival.” The tale of traveling to the festival, located six hours north of Timbuktu, makes the trek to Woodstock in 1969 seem like a door-to-door limousine trip, their convoy of trucks filled with water and equipment braving hijackers along the way. “Security was basically a four wheel drive truck with machine guns mounted on top,” says Pransky.
The show itself was worth any ordeal. “You ride there and there are people on camels with swords,” explains Brown. “You play a show for the Tuaregs,” describes Pransky, referring to the native nomadic tribe, “people are chillin’ and listening. It’s a spiritual experience.” Brown echoes Pransky’s assessment. “In their culture, a sign of respect is to sit and listen to your music. It’s not getting up and cheering. All the masters are there. All the people that we admire are performing and sitting on the side of the stage while we’re performing. That’s when the big picture comes together. It’s such an amazing experience for us to be a part of. It makes it worth the time and effort of going to West Africa and sitting in 110 degree heat with flies all over you for hours.”
On stage, as captured on their wonderful live album, Live At The Orange Peel, percussionist Quaranta and Perkins, with his kamel ngoni and kora, slide through a variety of sun-drenched melodies and rhythms, providing the tones that many Americans will associate with African music. Brown, Heller and bassist David Pransky, no neophytes to the music of the Dark Continent, add a wide variety of different textures to the music, moving from Dick Dale derived surf-rock to Johnny Cash powered guitar riffs and 60s era basement psychedlia. The result is an instrumental mnge that transcends simple classification. If the crowds that flock to their shows to dance wildly and tribally to the beat are any indication, no taxonomy is necessary.
In addition to the American fans, the African communities have taken to Toubab Krewe’s melding of styles. “They love what we’re doing with the instruments,” relates Brown. “I think they’ve enjoyed us taking their music and respecting it, not just copying it.” Pransky agrees. “It’s a cross-pollenization of music. Going back and forth, incorporating things like Chuck Berry, we’re just a part of all that.” Brown relates it back to the origins of the band. “We don’t just play African music. That’s kind of how the project started and one of the reasons why we don’t have a vocalist. The project got started for fun, learning traditional West African music and then it evolved to include other influences.”
“The most important part of the training we received over there was to play hard,” explains Brown. “The first time I went to Africa, I thought I could play drums and learned that I really couldn’t. It starts to settle in that this is a whole new world set to a different rhythm and melody and then you’re hooked for the rest of your life. In terms of the drums, it’s always hit the drums harder’ and hit the drums faster.’ With the melodic stuff, it’s kind of like sitting on the front porch, old time music here in the States.” “There’s stuff you can’t learn and you can’t fake,” says Pransky. “You kind of learn the pulse of the music and follow the rules which kind of are that there are no rules.”
Pransky attempts the difficult task of explaining the indoctrination. “When I was getting a lesson, I would hear a line – obviously there’s a language barrier but music is universal – and we’d be playing something and I’d be on one side and he’d be on the other.” Demonstrating with a couple different beats, he illustrates his point. “You could hear “Stir It Up” and your brain can feel the song at the other side of the time and it’s like two totally different songs. It will totally transform in your head.” He then describes the illusive concept of being on the dark side of a song. It’s hard to tell whether being on dark side is a bad thing. “If you’re taking a left, you would be scolded but it still can sound cool,” explains Pransky, trying to make the concept understandable. “It takes a whole different feel. Just for example, if you feel a song pushing at the front of the time, you can hear the whole thing at a different vibe. That’s what really tripped my world over there. Now I can pick up a mandolin and its starting to be in my blood.”
As for technique, Perkins may have benefitted more than anyone. Sitting center stage playing either the kamel ngoni or the larger kora two harp shaped instruments that spring out of a half gourd base Perkins’ hands fly across the instrument, plucking out an array of bright melodies. If Robert Randolph is the Hendrix of the pedal steel, Perkins is the Django Reinhardt of the kora. Pransky offers some insight into Perkins’ playing style. “The ngoni is traditionally played like this,” he explains, indicating a manner customarily associated with a guitar. “[Perkins’] teacher was a blind man and played like this,” demonstrating the upright method that Perkins uses. “He had a whole different technique that he passed on to Justin before he died. He’s the only person who played that way. It gives me chills just talking about it.”
Besides the music education, the Krewe gained a healthy respect and admiration for the African culture and the musician’s place within their society. “Going over to study with these masters, you’re confronted with the caste system,” explains Pransky. “You’re born a musician and you are all equals. There’s really no rock star mentality over there. It’s a well respected thing but not any more than any other profession.” Their name also comes from the local language. “Toubab means non-African or white dude. It’s not derogatory: you can walk down the street and the kids shout, Tou-a-boub! Tou-a-boub!’ To call a person white man or black man doesn’t carry any other connotation other than a factual description.”
Brown quickly dismisses any mistaken belief that making an entrinto West Africa’s musical community requires connections or proper introductions. “You probably could just show up and announce that you were there to learn. You could find someone at the airport and they would take you by the hand and most likely lead you to someone who’s very trustworthy. They’ll bring you into their home, cook for you, clean your clothes and you could take lessons several hours a day.” In a musical sense, Brown acknowledges that they have brought something to their teachers. “I think we taught them more than we’re aware but we’re on the receiving end of so much more,” he says with humility. “We always respect that and are humbled by it,” adds Pransky. “It’s one thing to rock out but we give back to that community. We send money back to the families that we stayed with. We wouldn’t be where we are without them.”
In line with their desire to help those that once helped them, a portion of the proceeds from the upcoming Festivus For The Restivus will go towards the families and teachers that nurtured and encouraged the Krewe. Pransky founded the festival and this year’s event, as it has for the past seven years, will take place on his family’s farm in Cabot, Vermont. Running from July 17th through July 19th, the festival will feature two nights of the Toubab Krewe and sets from Oumou SangarBarrington Levy, Midnite, Black Sheep and Earle "Chinna" Smith. If the name of the festival has a certain Seinfeldian ring to it, it’s completely coincidental. “We came up with the name because we thought it was cool and then about three years later someone asks if we got it from Seinfeld. I had no clue what they were talking about so I looked into it.” At that point, Pransky came across the memorable Seinfeld Christmas episode. Have the Seinfeld people gotten in touch with Pransky over the use of the name? “No, but I’ve been waiting,” he says with a pleasant laugh. It’s clear he’s prepared. “Jerry, we got a slot for you all lined up.”
In discussing their time in Africa, it becomes obvious that no amount of explanation will adequately explain how the months spent immersed in a different culture have affected their lives in addition to their music. “There’s music all the time everywhere you go. It’s part of the culture,” relates Pransky. ”One of the biggest things we experienced is not the literal education of how to play but learning where the music comes from,” explains Brown. “Seeing it at its heart, I think that’s what we’ve all taken away. We’re doing something true to ourselves.”