Published Feb 27, 2009The music of the ancient Malian empire has become more popular in recent years thanks to the success of Toumani Diabate, Ali Farka Toure and Salif Keita. Each of these artists has experimented with American musical influences, but Asheville NC's Toubab Krewe flips the script. The sextet have developed an amazingly genuine crossover of musical styles since its formation in 2005. Traditional percussion patterns and characteristically West African guitar lines combine with the deepest music of the American South - blues, zydeco and more - to create an incredible danceable sound. Toubab Krewe have been road warriors, enjoying success in the jam band scene, but pretty much everywhere they go, they win new converts of all ages and walks of life. Their second album Live At The Orange Peel was released digitally at the end of last year, and comes out in disc form on March 10. Exclaim! spoke with percussionist Luke Quaranta at his home in Asheville.
How did Toubab Krewe come together? Has a deeper knowledge about African music spread beyond major cities into different parts of the country?
Definitely. I think that is a phenomenon that is going on. Most places you go these days you'll see someone playing afrobeat in the style of Fela Kuti. And West African percussion styles have really seeped into America, all over the major cities and college towns and small towns. That was our introduction to the music. Just a real passion and love of that style of music led to the desire to get to the roots of it. Our initiation to it was the percussion styles from Guinea, from Conakry [capital of Guinea], then into Ivory Coast and then to Mali. A couple of us in the band took our first trip back in 1999 and were in Conakry for a month and that led to a full group trip of a drum and dance group we had here called Common Ground. That went to Guinea and Ivory Coast for two months, and we got to study and live with our teachers and their families for two months. Studying music in an informal sense with nationally and internationally recognized artists, it was on that trip in 2001 that interest in the more melodic and more band oriented styles arose. Justin [Perkins] started playing kora, and on a 2004 trip to Bamako he started playing kamel n'goni [a West African hunter's harp]. Our guitarist was quite surprised about the guitar tradition over there; a lot of traditional music has been transposed to guitar over the last 50 years. We just continued to fall in love with the music. At that point we got more interested in the back-and-forth culture, Africans being inspired by American styles and of course, American musicians being inspired and rooted in that area of the world. We had a vision of the band that could let all our influences act evenly on our music and coexist side by side, whether blues or rock or zydeco, more swamp, gypsy swing stuff whatever.
You can certainly hear the American influences reflected back through your music. You guys have an ability to take these traditions and add your own point of view to them. From what I've heard from others who have studied there, that perspective is really valued.
Yeah, absolutely. We played the Festival In The Desert in [Mali in] 2007, it was the first time we went over as a band. Our teachers and our fellow musicians at the festival really gave that kind of feedback. They appreciated what we were doing in terms of the creative license we were taking and the kind of explorations, like you were saying, of the common place between the two musical styles, and from an honest place. It was really a full circle for the band - to be there as performers and not necessarily as students and share our music and have that kind of response and encouragement to continue doing what we were doing. I'd encourage anyone from the States to go to the Festival In The Desert.
So how would you compare and contrast that to, say, Bonaroo?
It's funny, that festival spirit is universal. A time to put aside the day to day and engage with people in communal musical activity. In the Festival in the Desert there's a real kind of cultural component in terms of the ethnic groups that travel there. But that spirit came out in both instances. Bonaroo, that's the largest crowd we've played in front of - 15000, on a Thursday at midnight. I was sick... but it was a real moment for the band.
You get a lot of love in the jam band scene.
Yeah, a lot of fans have taken to the music. And the press has appreciated what we've done. Sometimes I think the jam band scene - it spans a lot of music, it's a music loving crowd. Some of the jam band festivals have expanded beyond just traditional jam bands in their lineups into hip-hop and funk and blues and rock other things. Bonaroo's gone in that direction with Metallica, Pearl Jam and Kanye West.
There must be some similarities between the Festival In The Desert and playing in North American festivals - people must really respond with dancing in both places.
The dance aspect is the most significant thing we've experienced. People will say "I haven't danced so much in years" or it was impossible to keep still to your music. Even in sit down listening venues where people have filled the aisles to dance. Our crowd ranges from 15-year olds, to parents who come with their kids, to 75- and 80-year olds who continually write us emails. Maybe the instrumental quality of the music, maybe the spiritual, maybe the cross cultural has brought in a really diverse crowd and it's been one of my favourite things about this band.
Tell me about your next album.
Actually, we had done quite a bit of studio work over the last year and a half for the second record. But we actually decided to put out [a live record] after a New Year's run here in Asheville at the Orange Peel, it's a great mid sized venue, Rolling Stone ranked it one of the top five mid-sized venues in the country. It's a great room and it's our home town and we had close to capacity crowds both nights the 30th and 31st of December with some really good guests like Umar Bin Hassan from the Last Poets, who joined us on two songs. [The disc] is a combination of those two nights - a little over an hour of music, eight songs! One of Umar's songs is a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, the other is called "Personal Things." I'm really excited about this record, the live energy really comes across.