Experiencing a Toubab Krewe concert is like exploring a museum of rare artifacts: It’s enlightening. Viewing the band onstage can be unique, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime, even. Their show offers the opportunity to view bizarre instruments, such as the kora, djembe, or kamelengoni, in action. Toubab Krewe not only brings African culture to American audiences, they craft the type of music that infects the hips and heels, and beckons the crowd into movement.
Luke Quaranta, the percussionist of the Asheville, NC-based instrumental band, first encountered West African drumming during his freshman orientation at Warren Wilson College. A few local teachers had been instructing a drum group on traditional West African rhythms. “It definitely grabbed me,” Quaranta remembers. “I immediately was called to it and felt like it was something I wanted to discover more about.”
Quaranta, whose parents are both kick drummers, joined the group. “By the end of my freshman year, myself and two other guys decided to travel to West Africa to study it more,” he reveals. “We had a connection with a teacher there, a famous drummer who was a director of one of the national ensemble drumming groups. We stayed at his house for a month in 1999, and studied music and drumming every single day, playing with him and his sons. That was a whole other level of exposure.”
Quaranta urges studying music is much like learning to speak a new language. Understandingf it fully comes from immersion into culture. “The music really isn’t a written tradition,” he explains. “It’s very much an oral tradition that is passed down through families. Sitting there every single day, studying 24 hours a day, it felt like the appropriate context to really learn what it was about.”
In 2001 the Warren Wilson group visited the Ivory Coast for two months, with seven drummers and seven dancers, including three members of what would become Toubab Krewe. Guitarist Drew Heller traveled in 2002 to study before returning in 2004 with guitarist Justin Perkins.
“That’s when those guys started to get into more of the string culture, the guitar playing from that area: the kora and the kamelengoni, the two different African harps Justin plays,” Quaranta tells.
The percussionist returned to Mali in 2005, just before the formation of Toubab Krewe He concentrated on playing djembe and the congas.
“The djembe’s old, very old—maybe 12th, 13th century,” Quaranta explains. “Very old drums of West Africa with a lot of tradition, and it’s really played all over the region. It’s accompanied by the dundun ensemble. The dundun is the bass drum; the sangban is the middle-tone drum; and then the kenkeni is the highest drum. Those drums create the rhythm section for the djembe, and the djembe is played as an accompany instrument but also as a lead instrument. It’s a dynamic drum. There’s a whole canon of rhythms from that ensemble of drums.”
The congas, Quaranta concedes, are much more Latin in nature. It’s a testament, however, to the wide range of genres that can be explored in even one song by Toubab Krewe.
“Congas are very important in Cuban, African and Latin American music,” he details. “Similar construction [to the djembe], but also very different tones and a different kind of style. But there are a lot of similarities and common roots with the djembe ensemble, congas, and the bata—which is also part of Nigerian tradition but is prevalent in Cuba. That’s the main thing: the mutual history between the Americas and Africa but also the contemporary back-and-forth between the two.”
Toubab Krewe fuses global elements with the American tones each NC band mate grew up with, such as rock, blues and Appalachian music. Even “Mariama” off the 2010 record “TK2” begins with jazz notions, opening up to Middle Eastern flavor. Rounded out by bassist David Pransky and drummer Terrence Houston, Toubab Krewe merges ethnic influences with jam-band sensibilities.
“I feel our initial inspiration was the traditional music from that area,” Quaranta expresses. “Then I think the revelation that it could be mixed and work well with so much of the music we grew up with. We realized a lot of the roots of all the music came from that area [of Africa], at least part of the roots of American music. The philosophy we started the band under was just the love of traditional music and exploring the common ground between it and all the music we had grown up with.”
Quaranta says there is still an exchange between the two countries, as the Africans he’s encountered tend to be inspired by Otis Redding, James Brown and Motown. “When you get in cabs, a driver will play some traditional West African song and then he’ll change his CD, pumping Phil Collins or Celine Dion,” Quaranta jokes. “It’s kind of surreal: just rolling down the street in West Africa in this taxi hearing Genesis. It’s a trip.”
One of the most common questions Toubab receives is, “How do five white guys from North Carolina get interested in West African music?” It all comes down to traditions—hundreds of years of appreciation.”Traditions evolve and inspire each other and continue to grow to this day,” Quaranta divulges. “So it’s kind of natural, I think, that we find the common ground in places where the traditions from western North Carolina blend with traditions from western Africa.”
Toubab Krewer will play Ziggy’s by the Sea on September 12th, and will donate $1 of every ticket sold to build a schoolhouse in Mali for one of their instructors.
“We’re getting really close,” Quaranta says of the goal. “I know we’re approaching the $10,000 mark. It’s kind of a long-time dream of our teacher, so we’re excited that it’s in process. It’s been such a blessing in all our lives just to appreciate such a great traditional music culture and to have folks there that are like family at this point. It’s hopefully a relationship that we can bring as much to them as they have given to us.”
Thursday, September 12th
Doors: 8 p.m. • Show: 9 p.m.
Ziggy’s by the Sea, 208 Market St.