Africa in their eyes

On a night hot enough to legitimately imagine that Asheville lies on the edge of the Serengeti, a crowded line snakes toward the Orange Peel, waiting to see Afrobeat quintet Toubab Krewe. The band, when they appear, receives a rock-star greeting before breaking into a pulsing instrumental driven by hand drums and the gourd-bottomed harp called the kora.

The audience, faced with this decidedly atypical show of musicianship, bursts into frenzied rhythms. A trio of breakdancers clears a space near the back and take turns spinning wild, retro-’80s moves. A family of African men stop talking among themselves and stare toward the stage. It’s an impressive reception for a group who’s only been playing, officially, for less than a year.

From Guinee to Goombay

“It seems like things are happening real fast for a band that’s been together [10] months, but we’ve been working real hard for eight years,” insists percussionist Luke Quaranta during an interview with Xpress. In fact, the band’s whirlwind year has included numerous brief tours up the East Coast, the release of their debut, self-titled CD — see this week’s “Earful” column for Hunter Pope’s review — and inclusion in several festivals, not least of all monster Bonnaroo.

And, on August 26, they’ll make an appearance at Goombay, Asheville’s late-summer African-and-Caribbean culture festival hosted by the YMI Cultural Center. It’s not their biggest gig to date, but it is the first time this all-Caucasian group is venturing outside the club-and-jam circuit to represent a music not native to any of them.

Still, the quintet — all in their mid-to-late 20s, and made up of former members of jazz outfit Count Clovis and drum-and-dance collective Common Ground — is unified in the idea that they’re bringing authentic African culture to local audiences.

“People have a concept of what Africa is,” Quaranta states. He declines to describe what that concept might be — maybe the oft-seen images of swollen-bellied children in tattered clothes, or Masai in red garments gazing over dry pastures, or Ubangi women smiling through their lip plates. “What we’re really doing is giving people our awareness of how diverse [African] culture is,” says Quaranta.

The percussionist, along with kit drummer Teal Brown and guitarists Drew Heller and Justin Perkins, has been fortunate enough to gain that awareness firsthand. The four musicians traveled to Africa to learn music and dance (bassist David Pransky plans to go there soon), taking their first trip to Guinee in 1997 while students at Warren Wilson College. Once there, they studied with teachers Lamine Soumano, Vieux Kante, Koungbanan Conde and Madou Dembele.

“We’re grateful to these teachers, because in Africa, it’s a joy to share music,” Brown enthuses. That, he says, is “what we’re doing.”

Questioning the “perfect beat”

They’re not doing it alone, though. Toubab Krewe might be making waves locally, but as far as young, all- or mostly-white American-born traditional-African bands go, the Asheville group has been in good company for years. (Chicago Afrobeat Project, for example, recently played Bele Chere.)

They’re not even the first all-white band to be featured at Goombay, says former YMI Executive Director Rita D. Martin, who lists reggae band the Zion Project among the veteran Goombay groups with no members of color in their lineup.

“Bands are chosen on quality of music and their sensitivity to the origins of the festival,” says Martin. “Since Toubab Krewe plays African instrumental music, have trained with master musicians in Africa and understand the nature and importance of honoring African music and its roots without distorting the origins, they were a good fit for Goombay.”

The YMI, she says, “wants to accurately represent African and Caribbean cultures using individuals from those areas, or who have those origins, and at the same time, use professionals who have the talent to carry the music.” Then there are bands like Toubab Krewe, who “honor tradition and are culturally sensitive, but don’t necessarily come from the area — however, they do a great job of representing the culture. We think this band does that.

“They step out of their comfort zones as white Americans,” she adds. “They’re honoring traditional African music that is found in all music today.”

Still, notorious rock critic Robert Christgau once ventured that at least some white purveyors of traditional African music are in it for more than the music — namely, they’re also co-opting some fashionable politics. Writing in the Village Voice in 2003 about what he termed a nationwide “boomlet,” Christgau referenced late Afrobeat founder Fela Kuti and his anti-government stance.

“It’s because they identify with all this extra-musical stuff that Westerners form Afrobeat bands,” Christgau theorized. “Mix in some clubbies looking for the perfect beat, and you have a commercially plausible premise for the [trend].”

“It gets into your body,” Brown admits of that irresistible rhythm. He concedes that Toubab Krewe is enjoying its success, but is quick to add, “we’re not saying [that] we’re imitating West African musicians; we’re just being ourselves.”

It seems the boys just can’t help it: “By studying drums and dance for several years, going back and forth to Africa, living with families and teachers there, it becomes a part of you,” say Brown. And when they’re not succumbing to the beat, the band is happy to play teacher themselves, offering fans who can’t make the intercontinental trip a list of must-hear African artists.

Afrolachian exchange

Here’s something you may not know about African music: The violin is often used, at least in some areas, such as Mali. While in Africa, Heller (whose producer father Steven Heller lends his influence and studio skills to Toubab Krewe) learned to play a relative of the violin, the one-stringed soku. “It’s a small gourd with a horsehair string on the neck, and it’s played with a horsehair bow,” he says. “It’s kind of raspy.”

Heller rarely brings this instrument on stage, but is working on translating soku technique to Appalachian fiddle — an instrument he’s played for years.

Perkins is often front-and-center at shows with the kora, a 12-string harp he started studying four years ago. “It dates back to the 10th or 11th century and is played all over West Africa,” he reports. “The kora has a huge amount of history.”

That doesn’t mean it has to sound old, though. Toubab Krewe carefully constructs modern, polished, jazzy instrumentals around the kora’s unique, warbling tones. Fans of Afropop or Afrobeat know how this continual updating and blending of sounds is what makes the music so vibrant and contemporary. Recent Asheville appearances by Malian guitarist Habib Koite and Nigerian juju music innovator King Sunny Ade have made way for a greater range of world-music acts — a bandwagon upon which Toubab Krewe is happy to jump.

Other locally based world-beat acts include the Afromotive, a drum, jazz and funk octet; Cabo Verde, a modern Flamenco sextet; Middle Eastern collective Soora Gameela; gypsy-jazz act One Leg Up; and popular salsa band Eta Carina. Atlanta’s Mandorico, who will also appear at Goombay, infuse their Latin rhythms with the up-tempo of ska — a music that morphed from ’60s Jamaican drums and horns to spastic ’80s British post-punk.

Toubab Krewe hasn’t forsaken rock, either. According to Quaranta, “We’ll listen to Habib Koite, but the next CD will be Led Zeppelin.”

And Heller reveals another, unexpected layer to the cross-pollination. “Malian music has been influenced by American music for decades. The [Malian] videos look like American videos,” he explains. “The arrangement of the bands look[s] American.” Still, the sound — listen to the pop sensibilities of Oumou Sangare, or the deep grooves of Ali Farka Toure — is something thrillingly apart.

But Toubab Krewe seems bent on proving that Africa and America have as much in common as not.

“The kamel ngoni is newer and smaller than the kora,” Perkins says of that other traditional Malian instrument. “It’s very bluesy — you hear a lot of funk and blues influence, so it fits well with a lot of American music.”

And — surprise — the musician has also discovered how well the kamel ngoni blends with banjo and old-time tunes. That’s next.

Catch Toubab Krewe at Goombay at 2 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 26. Goombay runs Friday (Noon-11 p.m.); Saturday, Aug. 27 (11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.); and Sunday, Aug. 28 (11 a.m.-6 p.m.) on Eagle and Market streets. Admission is free. For more information, contact the YMI Cultural Center at 252-4614.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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