Oral traditions thrive with Toubab Krewe
BY STEVEN MARK / firstname.lastname@example.org
If music can define a place, then the band Toubab Krewe has gone to great lengths to define itself.
Originally formed when the members were college students in Asheville, N.C., in 2005, the band traveled to West Africa several times over the years to study the indigenous music of the region, blending it with Western pop genres like rock and surf music.
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“Travel really has been a huge part of developing our sound, and travel has been a catalyst in the band coming together,” said Luke Quaranta, who plays Western and African percussion instruments for the band.
The Krewe plays on standard Western instruments including guitar, keyboards and a drum kit, as well as traditional African instruments that range from the percussive djembe (a goblet-shaped drum), to the kora (an upright string instrument that resembles a blended harp, banjo and cello).
The resulting sound, while clearly Afro-pop, is uniquely its own, with varied colors and timbres.
THE GROUP has traveled extensively in Guinea, the Ivory Coast and Mali — the culture most often identified as the band’s inspiration — studying with master musicians there and learning the music. That often meant just sitting on the porch, receiving daily instruction, sometimes jamming with their teacher’s children, having the music ingrained in their minds.
“It’s really an oral tradition,” Quaranta said. “Nothing’s written. The songs come down through generations. We play songs that have been played for literally hundreds of years.”
Those include some traditional tunes by the Mande, one of the major ethnic groups of West Africa, now taken up by several significant contemporary West African artists.
Quaranta says it probably helped that the group members did not have formal musical training (though original drummer Teal Brown did).
“Traveling to West Africa was really our formal music training,” Quaranta said. “The band was definitely formed around that style.”
Over the past few years, however, the band has been finding inspiration back home on the mainland, as group members left Asheville and spread up and down the East Coast.
“It really has brought a lot of different flavors into the music,” Quaranta said.
“Dave (Pransky, on bass guitar) been getting into a lot of cumbias and more Latin styles, in Miami. Terrence (Houston, on drums) brings that real New Orleans flavor, and me being in New York it’s a great opportunity to explore music that’s up here.”
Other members of the band are Justin Perkins on kora, kamelngoni, guitar and percussion and Drew Heller on piano, guitar and fiddle.
Quaranta expressed concern over recent events in Mali, which has been riven by armed skirmishes between Islamist rebels and French-backed government soldiers.
“It’s disheartening,” he said. “It’s really kind of a perfect storm kind of scenario, and Mali is in the cross hairs of it.
“Mali has been such an amazing example of multiethnic harmony. … They’ve found really creative ways to have long-term democratic rule for decades.”
Music, he said, has been a binding force for the region, with many of the present-day master musicians coming of age during the 1960s. That was an era in which the region was gaining independence from European colonial powers.
The group has been raising money to help their teachers build a music school there, including performing in a festival in the Malian desert that at the time symbolized rapprochement between the North and the South. “To see all the musicians gather there, that was really one of the highlights of my life,” Quaranta said. “I’m hoping that ultimately Mali gets through it.”
“It’s really an incredible, incredible place — musically, culturally, creatively. … There’s just such an amazing joy, and also kind of a connection to the past.”