Lately, some members of Toubab Krewe have taken to fondly describing their musical brew as “international country.” The popular genre-bending quintet has spent the last eight years fusing West African traditions with strains of Americana — rock, surf, psychedelia and Appalachia roots.
“As we’ve grown we’ve played a lot of stuff,” says percussionist Luke Quaranta. “Traditional music from numerous places. But that thread of country and folk music is the same wherever you go, really.”
Toubab Krewe’s upcoming Asheville performances — tagged the “Winter Carnavalito,” January 18-19 at the Orange Peel — are a homecoming. Guitarist and soku (West African fiddle) player Drew Heller, kora (21-string harp-lute) and kamelengoni (12-string harp-lute) player Justin Perkins, and original drummer Teal Brown knew each other from middle school in Asheville. “Justin and Drew were friends in elementary school, and started putting bands together early on,” Quaranta smiles.
Heller and Brown enrolled at Warren Wilson College, as did Quaranta, a native of New Rochelle, New York, in 1997. “We’d all been open to discovering music from anywhere in the world and being inspired by that,” he says. “We had this interest individually, but when we came together it grew communally.
“Warren Wilson was a meeting point, and a real catalyst for us exploring West African music.” The friends helped start the Common Ground Dance and Percussion Ensemble at the college for that purpose. “We began to play together, and kind of fuel that fire,” Quaranta recalls.
Quaranta and Brown made their first trip to West Africa as students in 1999. The next year the percussionist raised money, while writing his senior thesis, for the entire 14-piece Common Ground ensemble to travel to Guinea and Ivory Coast for two months to study music and dance. “We left a month after we graduated. It was a pretty special experience,” he says.
When the Common Ground ensemble disbanded in 2002, Quaranta moved back to New York. Heller visited the Ivory Coast again that year, and in 2004 he and Perkins traveled to Bamako, Mali. “Their experience there really kind of changed things,” Quaranta says. “They focused more on the string music, on guitar and kora and n’goni music, and met some amazing teachers that we have great relationships with to this day.
“It was on that trip I think that they started to have a vision of integrating the traditional music we’ve learned playing from our hearts, from our rock and roll background, our American Appalachian roots background, all the music we grew up with. They got that first glimpse that there was a lot of common ground between the styles, a lot of places where things could overlap.”
After exchanging calls and e-mails, they decided to re-convene in Asheville as a quintet — Heller, Brown, Perkins, Quaranta, and a bass player who’d been recommended to them, David Pransky. And they had a band name, Toubab Krewe. (“Toubab” is a word used in West Africa to mean “foreigner,” or “traveler.”) “We just dove in,” Quaranta recalls, “and played over 1000 shows in the first five years. Totally in love with the music, and seeing the band evolve as we began to incorporate other influences in with the strong West African influence.”
Within months of their first gigs in 2005 the Krewe-mates were releasing an album and playing in front of thousands at Bonnaroo. “There’s an openness in the jam scene, so I think there was really open ears with that contingent of music fans,” Quaranta reasons. “We got a lot of love at festivals, and quite a bit of initial momentum. We’re grateful for that.”
Midway through Toubab Krewe’s “Autorail,” a rhythm change sends the tune into a higher gear. “The West African style is to switch the feel in the song, playing it more like a 12/8 vibe or a 6/8 vibe, even though you’re doing the 4/4. Being fluid in it too, floating in between those feels.
“A lot of our stuff is experimenting with that and seeing what comes out,” Quaranta explains. “Sometimes when writing music we just play the groove until something happens that might deviate from it. The way we’ve written music has been real natural and organic, how all the influences continue to find their way into it.”
Quaranta’s percussion equipment is rooted in the West African tradition — djembe, dundun, karenye (metal scraper), logs, but he’s added congas for melody, and “bought in some different bell setups for more of the Latin stuff. Artistically, musically it’s pretty limitless what we can do with our instrumentation,” he says. “The feedback that we’ve gotten from our teachers, and musicians that we respect in West Africa, has been much more positive because of the creative license we’ve taken rather than playing it a very strict way. Their encouragement has always been around us finding our own voice, playing from our hearts and not holding anything back. I think they find inspiration and realness in that.”
Toubab Krewe released its second album, TK2 in 2010 (Nat Geo Music). Drummer Teal Brown left the band in the summer of 2011. “We’d been playing together for 14 years, numerous trips to West Africa together, so there was this kind of shared language that can only come from playing together that long,” Quaranta says. Vic Stafford took over on the kit for most of 2012, with New Orleans drummer Terrence Houston (George Porter, Jr.) inheriting the chair last September.
“Terrence is bringing so much to the group — he’s just crushing it. He’s got a great feel for it, and he’s playing all the grooves really creatively,” Quaranta says. “Anytime we have a chance to play in Asheville it’s special. This’ll be our first time playing Asheville with Terrence, so it’ll be a new experience for everyone.”