West African music is getting pimped out fairly regularly these days. Vampire Weekend takes the most watered-down version of Afropop you can imagine, scores a record deal, and instantly it's the biggest "it" band of 2008. Consider that a fluke, but there are a number of gringo bands making a modest living by basically aping the sounds of West Africa (Senegal to Mali, for the most part), without even delving into what the music really means. That's a rant I could continue on and on — hell, black musicians are even more guilty of it than white ones. But one group, which is coming to town this weekend, is definitely taking a more organic approach.
Based in the mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina, the Toubab Krewe is, unlike any other band to come before them, merging American rock with the sounds of Guinea, Mali, and the Ivory Coast. Consisting of five eccentric East Coast music lovers, they have made quite a name for themselves in the international music community, mostly for their ability to combine jam band-style noodling with authentic West African musicianship. In just four years of performing together, they've already appeared at festivals with major clout, such as Bonnaroo Music Festival, Vegoose, Voodoo, and the Jam Cruise, among others. According to Drew Heller, the group's guitarist and soku player, their favorite experience yet was heading to Mali to play the Festival au Desert — a three-day music extravaganza in the middle of the Sahara that's commonly described as the most remote music fest on the planet.
"It was one of the best experiences of our lives," Heller says during a recent chat. "We met Tuaregs who'd traveled 21 days by camel just to get there. And we were one of only three Western bands that got to play it." That's a major accomplishment in itself. As you listen to their stellar compositions of "Afrolachian" rock 'n' roll (African and Appalachian, in case you haven't figured it out yet), it's easy to tell why they're gaining so much traction.
Call it ballsy for five white kids to make a career out of playing the kora, balophon, djembe, and a host of other instruments that most Westerners can't even pronounce. But much of the straight-ahead African flavor comes naturally — legitimately so — to the quintet, according to Heller.
"We all grew up listening to this music as kids," Heller says. "We listened to groups like Fatala out of Guinea — the way they incorporated electric guitars into their music. That was our initial exposure. From there, as we hit high school, we started drumming together. Eventually we learned some rhythms, picked up more instruments, and it took off from there."
Heller, drummer Teal Brown, and kora player Justin Perkins have known each other since grade school in Asheville. They met bassist David Pransky and percussionist Luke Quaranta while attending Warren Wilson College, also in Asheville. After multiple jam sessions, they formed a group. As luck would have it, they all had mutual friends or friends of friends in West Africa, and it's their connections to the Motherland, aside from just musical recordings, that bind them the most.
The band has taken numerous trips to West Africa to study their individual instruments — learning from elite Malian musicians like Vieux Kante and Lamine Soumano. "We've all been there about three to four times," Heller says. "We'd go to study abroad basically with musician families. One trip turned into multiple trips, and we would spend most of the day and evening sitting outside with our teachers."
It's experiences such as those that have made the biggest difference in their musical growth. They obviously had some hefty cultural barriers to overcome. Without actually visiting and studying among the masters in their own element, there are certain traditions and playing styles that they may have never learned on their own.
"I remember my first trip to West Africa in 2001," Heller says, laughing. "I wanted to study kora and balophon (African xyolphone). I brought my guitar along just to keep playing, figuring nobody would be playing guitar in Africa. I got there and learned pretty quickly how deep the guitar culture there really is. There are so many amazing music styles in Africa, you can never really imagine it until you go and witness it for yourself."
Considering the group's roots were initially in rock 'n' roll, learning how to incorporate guitar into Guinean and Malian music was a huge breakthrough for the gang. They've since stretched the boundaries of their own sound, and on certain tracks on their debut disc, such as "Bamana Niya," it's easy to get lost in the way their guitar or fiddle plucking, strumming, and slapping can turn any instrument into a percussion.
When you combine that with their growing knowledge of the kamel ngoni (a 12-string harp) or the soku (1-string horsehair fiddle) or the kora (21-string harp), the music they make on stage is magical. If you show up at one of their gigs expecting to hear rock with a tinge of West African wankery, you'll be in for a surprise. More often, it's the other way around. But that's what makes them so fun to watch.
"There's nothing else in the world we'd rather be doing than playing music," Heller adds. "There's all these styles that we grew up with as Americans. After falling in love with all these styles from West Africa, we've learned that there aren't really any boundaries in music. That's the biggest thing some of our teachers have stressed. There are no limitations."