The talented members of Toubab Krewe play not only traditional rock instruments but also traditional African ones. These include noisemakers you've probably never seen in your life: the soku, kamelengoni, and kora. The band is composed of white dudes who marry West African sounds with American jam-band music.
Since 1997, Toubab Krewe has been crafting a unique sound. Though influenced by the Dark Continent, three of the members are native to the band's hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and the other two are from New York and Vermont. Not an African in the bunch.
The band hasn't spent much time in South Florida, but it's doing a tour of the state, making its way on to Fort Lauderdale. Then it's headed all the way down to Haiti and Jamaica on the tenth-annual Jam Cruise. Toubab Krewe plans to collaborate with the singer of Miami's Locos Por Juana, among others, on the ship. It'll be jam heaven. The boat will also be carrying such improvisationalists as Umphrey's McGee, Galactic, and Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers.
We spoke with the band's percussionist, Luke Quaranta, to find out about Toubab Krewe's beginnings, sounds, and upcoming album.
New Times: Did you start making music that was West African-influenced, or did you start making that later?
Quaranta: We did. That's kind of what brought the group together. A couple of the guys from Asheville had been playing together since they were kids, on different projects. But all of our interest with African music culminated around the same time, in those early years. We were playing together with a dance ensemble and decided to travel to Guinea in 1999, a couple of us. Then in 2001, I did a big fundraising campaign. We brought our whole drum and dance group to Guinea and the Ivory Coast for two months for more traditional drum and dance music.
The interest in the percussion and the dance really evolved to interest in music from all over the region and more of the string music and some of the jeli music, guitar music, and kora. As it developed, we began to study and pick up other instruments. It just kind of naturally took form in a rock setup. We didn't limit ourself to West African influence, but it brought us together as a band.
Where were you personally first exposed to music from West Africa?
I had heard a little maybe before college. When I got to college in Asheville is when I discovered a drum group there. Myself and another one of the founding members joined that right when we got to school, and from there, we played together for a couple of years. A couple of the other guys who grew up in Asheville had heard some recordings from West Africa, [they were interested] from a drum circle perspective. We just found the passion for it; we had a mutual interest in it and really followed it full force, traveling to Guinea, Ivory Coast, and more recently to Mali.
What we discovered and what had been so cool about the project is that the musicians and some of the musical styles in West Africa have blended with musical styles from the States. Over the last five or six decades, how musicians from both sides have been inspired by one another. At first, the story line was, of course, how did Americans from North Carolina get involved in this style of music? But when we dug deeper, in our travels and our experience of meeting musicians, connecting the dots, we noticed how musicians there were listening to Otis Redding and James Brown. There's kind of a back and forth. We feel like we're much more a part of that back and forth where rock 'n' roll meets styles from there and where the blues are influenced very strongly by music from West Africa.
Where do you find African music in the States? Do you have any good sites to find out about contemporary African music?
It has become much more prevalent, a budding of awareness of musicians and music there. Just like with the Putumayo record label and Nat Geo starting a music label and a lot of West African groups touring the States, playing major festivals like Bonnaroo. We first discovered it when it was underground on the internet and word of mouth from friends and going to record stores. When I was in New York, I would go to record stores when record stores were still alive.
You're also going to be on the Jam Cruise. You guys have a hybrid sound. You've done the Jam Cruise before...
We've done it twice before, in '07 and '09. It's an amazing time. This year, we stop in Haiti and Jamaica. We actually get to play on the beach in Haiti, which is interesting; we've never done that before. We've always done our set on the boat. This time, they're throwing a beach party when we get to Haiti. It's a really neat experience to play on the ground in Haiti. I've never been to Haiti. It's an amazing experience for music fans, especially jam music fans.
It's really one of the great events of the year. It's such a cool, self-contained, accessible... you're on a boat with music all the time. All the artists are casual and accessible; there's a lot of collaborating that goes on. It's a great party and way to start the new year. I'm excited we're playing two nights before in Fort Lauderdale with Umphrey's McGee. We haven't played a ton in South Florida, so I'm definitely looking forward to that show.
Your most recent album, TK2, is out on the Nat Geo label. Are you working on anything new?
Yeah. We put that out in 2010, and we are planning on recording this spring. Our goal is to actually record it in Mali. I've been to West Africa five times, and the band has traveled back and forth since 1999. The last time we went, we played as a band at the Festival of the Desert, which is an amazing festival north of Timbuktu, Mali, pretty much on the edge of the desert. We got to share the stage with some of the most prominent West African artists, some of the people who got us involved in the first place. A full-circle moment for us. We were on the continent, performing as a band, sharing our brand, our style of music with a lot of the people who inspired us.
We had an idea to go back and record an album project with friends and teachers who we've collaborated with over the years. We plan on being there four or five weeks cutting a record. That's a very exciting part of our year coming up.
Toubab Krewe, at Revolution Live (100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale) on January 7 at the Jam Cruise Pre-Cruise Show with Umphrey's McGee. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $25 at the door. Visit jointherevolution.net.
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