Toubab Krewe, Visualite Theatre, Charlotte, NC- 10/31
Toubab Krewe took the stage at Charlottes Visualite Theatre on Halloween looking like a utility crew from the set of Woodstock. They had on tie-dye paint splattered jumpsuits that glowed in the black light incandescence. There were giant skulls and cobwebs all around. Guitarist Drew Heller donned a facemask that momentarily made it seem like Buckethead was on stage. The audience, about half of whom showed up in costume, was ready for the show.
Toubab Krewe is a band of five guys from Asheville, North Carolina. With musical backgrounds as diverse as hip-hop, jazz, and Appalachian country, these guys all have one thing in common: a passion for West African music. After having immersed themselves in Malian music, both in Africa and at home, they came out with a sound all of their own. Think Paul Simons Graceland. Then add jam sensibility and rock and roll energy, and you are getting somewhere close to what an evening with Toubab Krewe might sound like. Anyone who has played African music, drums in particular, knows that no single musician is in the front. It is always about what the group can do as a unit, and never about an individual player. Toubab Krewe has taken this lesson to heart and plays without ego. Whether all five guys are on drums, like on their "Asheville to Abidjan" or while percussionist Luke Quaranta and kit player Teal Brown are holding down the drums and the rest of the guys are playing on their stringed instruments, they hold to this philosophy. That is not to say that none of the guys solo or step to the front. On the contrary, Heller is a phenomenal guitar player with a sound clearly versed in many styles. And Justin Perkins, whether on guitar or one of two African gourd based instruments that he plays, is always pushing the boundaries of what is possible when the east meets the west in such capable hands. But the band seems to be at its most natural while following Heller through his composed rhythmic changes. Perfectly constructed, Heller is accompanied tastefully by Perkins on the twenty-one string West African harp known as the kora and driven, followed, and moved by the bands traditional rhythm section.
That is not to say that Quaranta doesnt add a unique component hitting between notes and accentuating melodies like only a good djembe player can. And sitting front and center on the stage, Perkins forces your attention and your imagination on the possibilities as he wails, plucks, strums and pulls on the strings of the kora. At times he sounds like a steel drum through a reverb pedal. At times he sounds like a harp or even a sitar. Then, suddenly he licks his fingers and drags them across the strings and with your eyes closed, you hear a talking drum speaking directly to you.
Another aspect of African music that Toubab incorporates into their music is the subtle group change. When a group of drummers plays a composition, there are usually several, parts to it. The changes are brought about by cues. Suddenly, as if of one mind, a band made of many people and instruments can stop on a dime and start someplace else without losing a drop of the energy or groove. When the band encored with "Asheville to Abidjan," it showcased this method flawlessly. What was equally enjoyable and almost more interesting to watch however, was how the band incorporated it into its rock-meets-tribal music. The band would be playing as a unit and suddenly there would be a call, and the band would pick up and move, always graceful and exciting. At times these guys could have been rocking with The Who. At times they could have been grooving with Santana. Their sound ranged from electronica to groove, funk to reggae, at one point even playing a surf rock song that would have made Dick Dale tap his feet and pay attention. Regardless of where the night took them, they always stayed true to their unique sound, often exploring the range, but never deviating from the idea that is clearly in their heads.
Although they didnt cover any albums in their entirety or surprise us with a guest vocalist to come out and croon Sinatra songs, they brought the energy that the night deserved. Quaranta wore an Elvis wig all night, and the black lights burned throughout the evening. I saw a Viking in the audience with a huge screw gaping out of his cheek and a fully decked Wonder Woman. I saw a girl dressed as a joint with the instructions Smoke Me written across her wrap. Costumed or otherwise, I saw excitement everywhere. With ample options in the Queen City on this Halloween, people had made their pick and showed their love for their regional, if not local, heroes.