Truly integrating two disparate musical genres into a third doesn’t occur all that often. And when it does, it’s often lopsided in favor of one genre – over another. It’s unbalanced, and noticeably so. But when an organic musical marriage does happen, it can be like dynamite. Happily, such is the case for Asheville, North Carolina’s Toubab Krewe.
Formed in 2005, the quartet has quickly established itself within the jam band circles, yet isn’t really a jam band. Concocting a hearty musical stew of American and West African influences, Toubab Krewe seems focused on studying and respecting the West African music they love - as they continue to recognize and pull from their own American musical backgrounds.
The result, for me, is one of the more interesting new bands to come around since the first time I heard Medeski, Martin, and Wood. The work ethic is immediately apparent, with superb and historically-informed performances by Teal Brown on the drum set, David Pransky, on bass, Luke Quaranta on percussion , Justin Perkins on the Kora (a harp-like instrument with either 12 or 21 strings, and a half gourd base), and Drew Heller on guitar and Soku, or Malayan fiddle.
Each member has spent not only time studying in West African nations, but also was immersed in the culture, and living in the homes of their teachers, often for months at a time. The dedication, work ethic, and respect of the band for the West African music is obvious. And the effort seems to be made cheerfully and with humility. But the result is not a cookie-cutter copy, of either culture’s music. More like gumbo. Guitarist Drew Heller told “Honest Tune” magazine, “In a way, our music is both familiar and foreign to West Africa and America. It exists somewhere in between.”
The band’s recent visit to Richmond, Virginia’s Brown’s Island showcased those artistic value statements well, as their energetic set of music fit in well with the bustling overhead railroad tracks, and the urban sounds that were never far away. The audience was a mix of urban office workers, families, and fans of the band. It was a free city-sponsored show. It was a glorious night of music on the James River. One or two audio tapers were present.
Having never heard the band before, I was immediately struck by the percussion, of course. Layers of rhythm that was immediate, intense, and intriguing, from the first note. If it were a wine, it would be a Cabernet, for sure. Yet I could also hear a certain ‘Western-ness’ to the playing, too, a slightly higher level of aggression about the note. A touch of American Rock and Roll, perhaps?
It would appear these musicians are musically-ambidextrous, and able to blend each cultural element together seamlessly. It never felt forced or fake. Guitarist Drew Heller’s 60’s surf music playing style roots some compositions firmly in the west. Justin Perkin’s amazing abilities with the Kora, seat many compositions firmly in the Dark Continent. Thick, intricate rhythms surround both.
I heard a brisk and tightly played festival set of music in Richmond, well worth the hour I had to drive. I shall hope to find more opportunities to catch Toubab Krewe again.