From Asheville's Toubab Krewe we've come to expect the unexpected. Kora, kamelengoni, soku. The band requires of its fans both a nominal West African vocabulary and a willingness to go there — if not to West Africa itself, than to the sonic border crossing between American rock and roots, and African rhythms and melodies.
Which makes it all that much more surprising when the band's sophomore studio album, TK2 — released this past summer — opens with … piano. And it's a kind of familiar, smoky/sultry vintage cabaret-style piano, too. The smack of snare and thump of bass set the mood so that ethereal strains of the kora, when it makes its entrance, is more shimmying showgirl than Saharan statesman.
"It's definitely new for Toubab Krewe, on our stage set-up, but for me personally, it's my first instrument," says Drew Heller who (prior to Toubab Krewe) played keys with Count Clovis and other projects. "It's really been more of an issue of space." In storage, the band has a Hammond Organ and a Rhodes, among other "cumbersome gear."
"I've felt stubborn about wanting to have the real organ, the real Rhodes or a real piano," says Heller. "But the realization struck that the years were going to pass and either I'd play the piano or not play the piano." He says the studio felt like the right time to "enter that texture" — that first step likely means Toubab Krewe will now have keys on tour.
Another new addition to the band's sound: Vocals. Namely, their own. "We'll be playing some newer music, integrating some vocal songs," says percussionist Luke Quaranta of the group's pre-New Year's Eve show at the Orange Peel. That's another interesting turn for a group that, since its 2005 inception, has been pushing the envelope as an instrumental ensemble. While Toubab Krewe certainly didn't invent instrumental music and other groups (Galactic, Medeski Martin & Wood) have found success among contemporary jam, rock and jazz fans, Toubab Krewe has rapidly risen in prominence on the festival circuit, performing at some of the largest (and least world music-ish) in the U.S. — Bonnaroo and MerleFest among them.
So why add vocals now? Simply, the band says they've enjoyed singing off stage; now the fun of singing has crept on stage.
It's possible that vocals could attract new audiences — a recent string of shows as part of the “Yo Gabba Gabba! Live!: There's a Party In My City!” tour put them in front of a different demographic for sure. Kids. The family-friendly concerts (a spin-off of the popular TV and stage shows featuring the brightly-colored Gabba characters) are part educational/part sheer entertainment.
"The robots and monsters and dinosaur cats were right on stage doing a song called “Peek-a-Boo”, right before we came on," says Heller. Toubab Krewe was on a stage that was wheeled forward to the audience. They played a four-minute song and then were wheeled back behind an LED screen. "It's an intense, fun and very different experience as far as performance art goes," says Heller.
The band was booked on the tour by its manager (hip-hop artist Biz Markie was another guest Super Music Friend on the tour) but it was up to the band to decide what to play. They started with Appalachian tune "Cluck Old Hen," but after testing an ensemble drumming piece — "A one-eighty from old-time string music," says Quaranta — the band found the rhythm was what brought the crowd to its feet. Quaranta points out, "We have a lot of different aspects and different things we can do, from old-time to rock 'n’ roll to straight-ahead West African."
These influences are evident on TK2. From the surf-rock gallop of "NTB" and the dirty blues of "Sirens" to the breezy, exotic sway of "Carnivalito" and the expansive 10-plus-minute journey of "Beacon," Toubab Krewe paints a canvas of creased road maps, off-track meanderings, diesel fuel, sun rises and friendly strangers.
"We don't really let any influence not make its way in," says kora, kamelengoni and electric guitarist Justin Perkins. "As you travel down the road and to different parts of the the world, you soak up what's around you."
Perhaps most notably, the band has traveled to Africa a number of times, dating back to 1999 when Quaranta and Brown made their first trip to Guinea. In 2001, Quaranta, Brown, Heller and Perkins visited Conakry, Guinea, and Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Over the years, they’ve studied with African teachers Lamine Soumano, Vieux Kante, Koungbanan Conde and Madou Dembele. In 2007, they performed at the Desert Music Festival in Essakane, Mali. This year (could they have known, more than a decade ago?) the band released TK2 on the National Geographic world-music label, cementing their place among world-beat acts — though that label seems less and less necessary as world music (like instrumental music) is embraced by widening audiences.
Toubab Krewe is planning another full-band Africa trip in the next year or two, but it seems the journey they're most focused on is a philosophical quest — continuing to realize who they are as a band. The making of TK2 brought much of that to the forefront.
"This recording was something that was a long time in the making," says drummer Teal Brown. "From the first time we started touring in 2005, we've wanted to get back in the studio." The band spent six weeks-worth of 12-hour days at Echo Mountain "tapping the creative source. We picked out moments that were special to us; we were able to let the cream float to the top," says Brown. "It felt really cathartic, it was a great learning experience and it was very revealing to all of us which directions we can and which directions we want to head in as a band."
Says Heller, “It’s not always easy, but it’s such a beautiful dream to be doing this.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Toubab Krew (with Jonathan Scales Fourchestra)
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday, Dec. 30 (9 p.m., $15 advance/$17 doors. theorangepeel.net)