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Toubab Krewe

Roots Crew: North Carolina’s Toubab Krewe finds inspiration in Africa.


Toubab Krewe’s music is like Elvis’ hair.

In the ’40s and ’50s, some black people combed their hair back to give it a thinner, more “white” look. Because their hair was so thick, however, it often raised up in the front in a single curl, creating a pompadour hairstyle. It didn’t exactly look white, but it looked cool, so many white people began to mimic it. Elvis himself made the pompadour an iconic ’50s style when he adopted the trend—styling his hair after black guys who were styling their hair after white guys.

The traditional music of West Africa was influenced in the ’60s and ’70s by American funk and rock. West Africans adopted many of the American tricks, including amplifying their instruments, and blended them with traditional African rhythms to make it their own. Toubab Krewe, five white guys from the “Dirty South,” re-adopted the music, instruments and all, and brought it back to America in a new, hybrid form.

The Krewe’s music is almost entirely in African time signatures, with very cool African scales and chord structures, but they incorporate blues and surf guitar sounds as well.

“Everyone hears about the five guys who went to West Africa and started playing African music,” says Luke Quaranta, percussionist for Toubab Krewe. “The story that isn’t told is that we’re just fascinated by the whole mixing of cultures and styles.”

The music of West Africa stretches back a couple millennia. “The traditional music began as a way of story- and history-telling,” Quaranta says. Before the written word, musicians were also the storytellers and the historians of a given culture. Many of the percussion songs that have been passed down from generation to generation have words, stories and dances to go with them.

“I kinda got exposed to percussion music from that part of the world,” Quaranta says. “That was our gateway into music styles from around that region.”

The percussion music drew the band to West Africa, where they studied music with guitar and kora [a 10-string harp-like lute] prodigy Lamine Soumano. Soumano comes from Mali and is a well-known musician in both Africa and Europe.

While in Africa, they were exposed to much of the contemporary music in West Africa, which includes many Western instruments alongside traditional African instruments, but they’re all amplified. There is no fine line in Africa separating American rock from contemporary African music. “Music really enters a cultural language and the lines are blurred,” Quaranta says.

Through Soumano, the Krewe made a bond with the music, the land and the people of West Africa, and the band’s musical trajectory changed dramatically. They took the funk-inflected contemporary music and the traditional acoustic West African music and brought them home to the States to mutate with their own surf guitar, psychedelic rock and jazz leanings.

They’ve since played at many major festivals around the world including the Festival in the Desert in Mali, the High Sierra Music Festival and Bonnaroo, among others.

Toubab Krewe’s bond with West Africa runs deeper than the music. Soumano came up with the idea of opening a music school for the impoverished people of the area. Toubab Krewe hopped on board and has begun a fundraising effort in their hometown of Ashland, N.C. A local brewery is sponsoring them with the new Toubab Brew, with proceeds going toward the music school. In spring of 2011, the Krewe will return to Mali to help open the school.

Just as Elvis ultimately paid homage to the black community he grew up around for influencing his music and style, Toubab Krewe brings it around full circle to give back to the region that inspired many of their musical ideas.

w/ Infamous Stringdusters
The State Room
638 S. State
Friday, Jan. 21-Saturday, Jan. 22, 9 p.m.
$20 advance/$22 day of show