Back in the mid-2000s, Toubab Krewe were ahead of the game when it came to incorporating traditional African music into the American consciousness for the modern era. This was before anyone on this side of the Atlantic heard of bands and musicians like Tinariwen, Mdou Moctar and Bombino. This instrumental band from Asheville, North Carolina have been doing “desert blues” their own way while infusing it with notes of funk, folk, bluegrass, and jazz in abstract fashion. The quintet of guitarist and organist Drew Heller, bassist & keyboardist Justin Kimmel, drummer Terrence Houston, multi-instrumentalist Justin Perkins and hand percussionist Luke Quaranta will be bringing their sound to Park City Hall in Bridgeport on October 7. Local singer-songwriter Christopher Cavaliere will be kicking the night off at 9 p.m. with a wide range of styles.
Quaranta and I had a talk ahead of the show about how the band adopted their way of making music, going on trips to West Africa, playing a variety of hand drums, being part of a memorable music festival and the band looking to release a new album in 2023.
RD: What initially inspired Toubab Krewe’s musical approach? Did you guys travel to Africa before starting the band or did one of you get introduced to the music from the continent?
LQ: Definitely the roots of the sound originally were from our travels to West Africa along with a number of our band members growing up in Asheville. I went to school there so the Appalachian string music, old-time music and that kind of stuff was also an influence, specifically Drew [Heller] on guitar and Justin [Kimmel] who plays the kora and the kamele ngoni. They grew up around Appalachian music from Western North Carolina and those guys both had bands when I first met them when I was going to school. As we developed interests in the West African style during our late high school and early college years, it started really with a lot of the drumming music and also some of the traditional string music. It eventually got to a point where we ended up traveling over there while in college.
We were part of a group that traveled to West Africa together for two months… places like Guinea, Mali and the Ivory Coast. That experience of learning traditional music from those countries helped form the root of our sound and we started the band after two of the guys took a four-month trip to Mali, specifically the city of Bamako, in 2004. After they got back from that trip, we started playing a lot of traditional music from there but through a Western instrumentation as well with drums, bass and electric guitar along with traditional instruments. We didn’t consciously decide to mix these elements in a sort of jam style or anything like that, it was really the result of studying music from there and developing a band around that sound while playing traditional tunes or arrangements of traditional songs. Ultimately we started to write in the style so more than anything it was us letting our influences develop the music, whether it was all the West African influences in the instrumentation, some of the Appalachian influences from Drew & Justin’s childhood or everything else such as rock & roll, funk, jazz and other stuff in terms of the aesthetic.
More than it being a conscious decision to mix in these styles, our teachers encouraged us to play from our heart because we had been studying the music for quite some time. They wanted us to respect the style while taking some creative license in it as well.
RD: How were you able to go to West Africa? Was it through a college program or did you just want to go out there and check it out? How did you guys get connected to that particular region?
LQ: Like I said, it kind of started with all of us developing an interest in it. A few of us graduated from Warren Wilson College just outside of Asheville and there was a drum group on campus when we got there. One of the members, who’s a good friend of ours, traveled to Guinea through a program at Davidson College so that was our first connection to our teacher there. Then our friend went back the following year to study for a month with this teacher in Guinea. We didn’t go through a college program, it was something where we had the connection through the teacher and an opportunity to go live there and study.
Three of us from the drum group went over there for a month to learn the traditional rhythms and structures. During my senior year, the drum group evolved into a drum & dance group at that point and we started performing locally on a regular basis. We did a lot of fundraising, some of it through the help of some friends of the college, and we raised a bunch of money to organize a trip for 14 of us, drummers and dancers, to go over there to study in Guinea and the Ivory Coast in 2001. Then a few years later in 2004 we all continued to play after college and after Drew & Justin went to Mali the lightbulb went off to start a band in the style of traditional music but also pushing the envelope in terms of the way that it mixes with other sounds.
RD: You play a variety of hand drums including the djembe, conga, dundun, sangban and kinkini. Does each one require a different approach or are they relatively the same?
LQ: They’re all kind of the same. The conga is a bit different while the dundun, sangban and kinkini are bass drums from the djembe ensemble. Those are the bass drums that create the rhythm, and the djembe is the accompaniment and the lead instrument, so all those four drums are part of the same ensemble. That’s the first set that I started playing. I play the krin which is a wooden log drum that’s played in coastal Guinea and some other places. There’s also the karignan that’s a metal scraper which is indigenous to Wassoulou music from Southern Mali.
The djembe ensemble is the main core group of drums that I studied and it’s at the root of a lot of the music. Congas are more indigenous to Latin music, and I play them upright while with the djembe ensemble I play them sitting down while incorporating their sounds into a contemporary context like Toubab Krewe.
RD: That’s interesting how a majority of them relate to each other. During the band’s career you’ve played at festivals such as Bonnaroo, High Sierra, Wakarusa and Festival In The Desert. What do you like most about being part of music festivals and how do you differentiate the experience of playing at a festival versus at a club or another type of venue?
LQ: With music festivals, they’ve always supplied an environment we could thrive in. I think there’s a general openness to new styles of music, people might attend a festival to see a specific band or musician and then they’ll see something different that they’ve never seen before. Given that we play a unique style of music, I think that’s why we’ve done well at festivals. People have been able to experience something new that’s rooted in a style of music from a whole different culture but presented in a way where they can connect some dots between genres. I also just love seeing a lot of other interesting groups coming up with music that I’ve never heard before while running into friends I know from being out on the road.
I think those are some of the really great things about playing festivals. Being part of the Festival in The Desert was life-changing, just going to Northern Mali to see so many of the musicians and artists that inspired us to start the band was incredible. When we were there, it was the year after Ali Farka Touré passed and all these great artists from Bamako came up there to pay tribute and perform. A number of them got to see our set too so it was very special.
RD: Speaking of special experiences, Toubab Krewe took part in a live collaboration at the Manifestivus Festival in Cabot, Vermont back in 2010 with hip hop legend Common and Umar Bin Hassan from The Last Poets. Do you remember that at all? How did it come together?
LQ: I do, that was an awesome time. Our original bass player, David Pransky, put together the festival on his family’s land and he basically booked Common for it. At the time, we had been collaborating with Umar after meeting him in Columbus, Ohio. He just happened to be at a soundcheck of ours, he asked, “Who are these dudes playing African music?” and then we met, he was really interested in the kora and we connected. We invited him to perform with us in Asheville for a couple New Year’s Eve shows and he’s on two tracks off of our album Live at The Orange Peel that came out in 2008.
He contributed poems on those two songs, so we had been hanging and collaborating with him, he’s an absolute legend. We invited him to Manifestivus and when we realized Common was there, we knew those two did the track “The Corner” together and we decided to do the song as a live jam type of thing. We basically jumped up and joined Common’s band for the song, Umar did his parts, and it was epic. It was really cool to do that, that was sick.
RD: From the videos I’ve seen of the performance it looked very fun. It’s been a few years since Toubab Krewe released their last album Stylo in 2018, so can we expect a new record after this upcoming tour that has you guys playing Park City Music Hall?
LQ: Yeah, definitely. On this run we’ve been playing a good mix of stuff spanning our whole career from our first record onward. The set right now is a pretty good array of material from the whole catalog, but a new record has been in the works now for a bit. We’ve done a number of sessions over the last year or so, we got a bunch of music that we’re sitting on and it’s a bunch of different stuff. I think sooner or later we’re looking to have some new music out next year, we have plans to get together to do some more recording and we’ve been writing a lot of new stuff which we’re looking forward to having out very soon.
Park City Music Hall
2926 Fairfield Ave., Bridgeport
Oct. 7, 9:00 p.m.