Toubab Krewe

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Ashville’s most traveled band, Toubab Krewe release latest on Nat Geo Records

:: Toubab Krewe ::
:: Fox Theatre :: December 1 ::
::  Bluebird Theater :: December 2 ::

By Jonathan Gang

If you wait long enough, things tend to come full circle. Take rock and roll, for example.

A few hundred years ago, a sound brought to America by African slaves mixed with rural music to become the blues, which later took on different elements and phases until it spawned what we know as rock and roll today.

Similarly, Toubab Krewe represents the closing of one big circle. The Asheville, North Carolina band combines a heavy rock sound deeply rooted in their Southern home with traditional West African rhythms and instrumentation. The group truly sets itself apart from the pack with its decidedly unfamiliar lead instrument. Front and center on the stage at any given Toubab show is Justin Heller, who plays the electrified kora and kamenelgoni: a pair of traditional West African harps made from a large gourd and what seems to be an oil pan, respectively. The plucky, foreign sound of these instruments, backed by Drew Heller (electric guitar), Teal Brown (drums/congas), David Pransky (bass), and Luke Perratta (djembe/percussion), create a driving amalgam of American genres like Southern rock, blues, jam, funk, and hip-hop with African sounds that has little precedent.

According to Heller, the group’s unique sound has evolved organically over years and years of musical collaboration between its core members. “We’ve been touring for five-and-a-half years now,” said Drew Heller in a recent interview with The Marquee. “Myself, Teal, and Justin have been in bands in Nashville since fifth and sixth grade. without stopping until now, and when we met up with Luke and Dave at college a huge part of our musical worlds colliding was a love for traditional West African Music.”

The band members’ education in the rich musical traditions of countries like Mali, Ghana and Guinea began early in high school and college drum ensembles, but it was not solidified until the group traveled to Africa to see it for themselves. “After many years of many trips together everything sort of coalesced into one project that became the band as it is today. Going to Africa was a beautiful and amazing experience, to go there and learn the language and culture and all the other dimensions around what initially was just a familiarity with the music,” said Heller.

According to Heller, the combination of the African music and culture with their American roots was inspired by similar fusions they saw on these trips. “One of the most shocking and inspiring things we saw in West Africa was the integration of traditional instruments into more Western rock settings. There are bands that just gather in the streets for weddings and funerals that have drum sets, electric bass, and then koras, kamelengonis and traditional singers, and it’s all very cranked up and distorted with heavy reverb and delay. If you’re anywhere close to the speakers its like you’re at a heavy rock show,” said Heller.

The Krewe is touring now in support of their sophomore LP TK2, out, appropriately enough, on Nat Geo Records — an imprint started last year by the National Geographic Society, which publishes the very famous magazine National Georgraphic. The album finds the group’s music becoming even more of a “creole” sound, Heller said. “After five-and-a-half years together, the language of our music is developing to where our vocabulary is able to allow more influences to coexist in our expression,” he said. This is obvious enough from the sound of the disc, which has tracks that alternately recall surf rock, ska, metal, dance music, and heavy blues, in addition to their traditional African inspirations.

Many of the songs emerged from two weeks of uninterrupted jamming in the studio. “We went in with no idea of what we were going to do, and we just would improvise and then look back at what we had done when we transferred the tape, so all our ideas were really able to germinate in that way,” Heller explained.

Much of that ability comes after so many years on the road relentlessly promoting such a unique brand of music. But the group’s sound and live show continue to evolve. “It’s a slow unfolding process,” said Heller, “That’s what I love about playing live. Every night is so different, and you can never plan on things going in the same direction, whether you’re going to have a high-energy or a laid back show. As we’ve gone along I think we’ve gotten a little more comfortable with our weaknesses and our strengths. I feel like we’re stronger — not necessarily louder or rockier, but more comfortable with our musical relationships onstage — and able to explore and push ourselves further, closer to the brink of what we’re capable of doing.”

:: Toubab Krewe ::

:: Fox Theatre :: December 1 ::

:: Bluebird Theater :: December 2 ::

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