The Expanding Artillery of Toubab Krewe - Instrument Week on BTR


North Carolina by way of Africa: Toubab Krewe. Photo by Catskill Chill.

Instrument Week on BTR is exposing some of the best music makers (machine or human) in the industry today. With theremins, KRASH pads, samplers and loopers are becoming much more popular these days, one has to wonder: What about ethnic acoustic instruments? The kora? The kemel n’goni? Or the wide variety of ancient percussive instruments that current bands today are discovering? Sure, the congas have been a drummer’s favorite for years, but what of the djembe or the calabash? These instruments are so unique that they’re hardly heard of or used in the Western world. To the quintet known as Toubab Krewe, though, they provide a way of life.

Toubab Krewe hails originally from Ashville, North Carolina, but they have roots as far reaching as Guinea, Mali and the Ivory Coast. In the Malian language Bambara, ‘Toubab Krewe’ (pronounced “too-bab crew) means “foreign group” or “non-African.” From years spent studying well-known native African musicians like Ali Farka Toure and Salif Keita, the quintet was able to absorb not only polyrhythmic music but was also able to bring new meaning to their infused style. After touring heavily for the past six years, the band has expanded its reach throughout the United States, gaining recognition from a leader in world music publishing, Nat Geo Music. The key to their appeal, besides their hand drum-heavy-surfer-jam-and-sometimes-rockabilly vibe, may be the mystique of their unusual instruments.

When the Krewe first got together in the late 1990s, they were playing in a drum and dance group called Common Ground. After a few consecutive visits to Mali and Guinea, founding member Justin Perkins stepped away from drums and moved to African string instruments. He picked up the 21-stringed kora, which is a West African harp-lute that plays more like a blues guitar. It has a large, half-circle bottom that rests on the floor, and a long neck that holds 10 strings on one side and 11 on the other. A small hole in its center (like on a guitar) allows the multi-layered, plucked tones to escape the huge instrument. Unlike its size, the kora has a very delicate and ephemeral timbre. Perkins also discovered the kemel n’goni in his studies, which is a similarly shaped 12-string African instrument that has is most often associated with hunting rituals.

While Perkins reinvented himself as a string player, another founding member of the Krewe, Drew Heller, was learning more about how to hone his skills on the fiddle–or more specifically, the West African soku. The soku is a single-stringed instrument made of Malian horsehair, which the musician holds like a guitar but plays with a bow. The sound that resonates is a shrill but lovely soprano tone, varying only slightly with each finger movement.

The band’s two newest members, Vic Stafford (replacing original drummer and conga player Teal Brown) and David Pransky (ex-Dispatch mandolinist, though not a new member for TK) have spent much of their time catching up on what Perkins and Heller had already learned.

The fifth and final member of Toubab has also expanded his instrumental repertoire. Drummer Luke Quaranta, whose passion for African drumming brought him from New York down to North Carolina to join Common Ground, remains the main percussive force behind Toubab Krewe alongside Stafford and Perkins. Quaranta, who occasionally plays strings, has an impressive kit plus an array of hand drums that includes a djembe.

The djembe has become somewhat of a trendy instrument among musicians and non-musicians alike. They’re incredibly mobile and easy to play around with, but like all “easy” instruments, the djembe requires extensive practice to perfect its signature sound. In its bare elements, the djembe comprises one piece of Mahogany that is hand carved into a round, column-like stand that narrows at the top and opens into a bowl. As its size varies, so too does the sound it produces. Traditionally, the number of ropes around the outside of the djembe indicates the percussionist’s skill level.

Quaranta also plays the calabash, a round African drum that looks just like the head of the djembe. The calabash, however, is played not with an American drumstick but rather with a thick, cane-shaped stick. Inside the calabash are dried pulses (a type of legume) that bounce together to create a higher-pitch.

All of the wild and interesting instruments that Toubab Krewe employ to create their unique arrangements also help to bring the roots of African music into the mainstream, Western musical canon. Through their songs, American listeners are exposed to sounds that are as unfamiliar and initially strange as they are fascinating and provocative.

Search for Toubab Krewe in the upper right search bar to see where we’ve featured them before and keep checking back for more on this innovative group.