Toubab Krewe is an Asheville, N.C., jam band that blends West African music with American genres, including rock, surf, blues, Zydeco and bluegrass, to create generally upbeat instrumentals. In addition to drums, bass and guitar, the band uses African percussion, as well as the kora and kamelengoni (stringed harps or lutes). Most of Toubab Krewe’s members have traveled and studied music in Mali, Guinea and Ivory Coast. Toubab (tu-bob) means “foreigner” in West Africa. The band has performed at numerous festivals, including a breakout show in 2006 at Bonnaroo. Their current national tour supports their new album TK2, to be released September 7 on NatGeo (My favorite tune so far is an absolutely unhinged track with a rockabilly feel called “Nirvana the Buffalo.” It features a crazy mix of guitar styles, including one twangy riff that sounds as if it was recorded inside a really big milk bottle on Mars.) Toubab Krewe will play Sloss Furnaces on September 1, opening for Sound Tribe Sector 9. We spoke to guitarist and band co-founder Drew Heller by telephone last week.
Birmingham Weekly: Does
“toubab” [tu-bob-u] mean “foreigner” or
Heller: It can mean something different depending on how it’s used or depending on the context. It always means foreigner. It can mean white or really Westerner. It’s not derogatory. You would really understand from the inflection if it’s meant to be negative. If somebody doesn’t know your name, they can say “toubabou” [tu-bob-u]. That’s something you hear often.
Any advantage in being a
foreigner or an outsider when you’re trying to absorb a new culture or musical
style? Does it give you an interesting perspective?
It’s been a long, continuing process of learning these musical styles. We grew up listening to records of West African musicians. But when we traveled there… one advantage has to do with spoken language. Initially, I didn’t speak a word of French. I couldn’t speak the native languages. When we first began traveling with no spoken language available to communicate with anyone, music was the one thing where we understood the language, even if it was initially hard for us to play it, and still is, but you could listen to it and understand what you were trying to do. The lack of verbal understanding helped fuel the intensity of our ears for music.
You’re the opening act at
Sloss on September 1, but I assume you’ll play all the stuff from TK2.
I have no idea. We usually write the set day of show. But I assume we’ll play a lot from TK2.
Any time to work in
anything else? Any older stuff your fans would recognize? Anything just for
shits & giggles?
We definitely play around and have a good time. We’re never sure when we’re going to do it… we play some traditional Appalachian. We’ve been playing this traditional fiddle tune and song, “Cluck Old Hen.” The other night, we played in Roanoke, Va., and we played “Devil Woman” from our first record. It gets requested a lot, but we don’t often play it. We played it for the first time in ages. It was fun. It was very loose. It ended up being really fun. The energy around the song had changed and it took on a new form.
I’ve heard that people
dance at your shows. What experience do you want people to have?
We want it to be a fun, meaningful evening of music and celebration. I think all of us share the love of that human ritual of celebrating with music and coming together, playing live music and another night on earth together, having a good time. We want people to enjoy it as much as we do. And it goes both ways. When the audience is fired up, I want us to be as fired up as they are. You can never predict how rowdy a crowd will be. You may have a calm evening and have an idea of how things are, and you walk back into the club, and it’s been transformed into a completely ballistic environment. You don’t know what’s hit you.
Like your 2006 Bonnaroo
That was completely transformative—our first major festival, our first summer on the road as band. It was a late-night set. When we started there were maybe 30 people. By the end of our third song, it was packed. Somewhere within that song, the audience pushed us musically in a way we had never been pushed, and we pushed back, and something happened on stage. Something happened that we had never experienced, and in a way never will again because it was the first time. It still happens, but that was the first feel of a tidal wave. You can’t escape it. It’s just a surge of energy. You feel it, with the crowd being a big part, but it goes right through you into the music and pushes the music, and it’s exciting, and you don’t know what’s about to happen.
What are the pop influences
on your guitar playing?
As far as rock and roll, I grew up with heavy doses of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and The Allman Brothers [from] my older brothers’ and sisters’ record and tape collection.
Is surf an influence?
Yeah. I didn’t grow up listening to heavy amounts of surf, but I love the Ventures and Link Wray, and Junior Brown was and is a big influence. surf is definitely in there. Some of that tonality, that twangy tonality is from some of the more country influences. They blend together in the weirdest way. If you cross old-school soul beat with country tone on your guitar, tangy it gets pretty surfy pretty quick.
How about rockabilly?
Definitely. Growing up in North Carolina, playing a lot of mountain music, that driving beat is right underneath. We’ve played some Western swing and honky-tonk, and gigged out with some singers who do more honky-tonk style singing.. A big influence is Zydeco, from Louisiana and South Texas. That infectious beat… it’s been a big part of what we listen to. It’s all in there in everything we’re doing. There’s no boundaries. We just continue to play and not necessarily cut anything out. We make it the best thing we can as we play.
What excited you about West
African guitar when you traveled there?
Man, I was floored. My first trip in 2001 I brought a guitar to play because I would be gone for we few months and I would miss it if I didn’t have it. I initially started out trying to play the traditional instruments [kora, balafon], but almost instantaneously when I heard the guitar styles. I had somehow never been exposed. I had heard Ali Farke Toure and a handful of others, but the guitar culture there was so deep. From initially trying to play one simple thing and feeling like an infant on guitar, an instrument I had played my whole life, I was like, “I will focus on guitar.” It's such a cool instrument. So many other traditional [African] instruments have been translated to it.
And you play the soku. Tell
me what that is and why you dig it?
I don’t perform the soku very often. It’s an every other blue moon kind of thing. It’s a bowed instrument. I do play the fiddle on stage more than I play the soku, but I love it and want to continue studying it. It’s more like a work in progress, as is the fiddle. The soku music translates to the fiddle in a strange way. It’s an old-time music. Like bluegrass, it doesn’t really have solos. The soku is similar the way it’s used.
What about the second track on TK2, “Nirvana the Buffalo”?
I came up with that opening riff in my old childhood bedroom in Asheville when I was home from tour, and we had a rehearsal late that week and started playing. We were listening to so much Zydeco. It's a silly name, and an homage to Nirvana and Dawn of the Buffalo—possibly more for the sake of the song title. I love that song. A really fun song to play. Really bouncy. Somewhere between Zydeco and... I don’t know what that is at the end. It gets out there. It moves to some sort of outer space territory.
Toubab Krewe will appear at Sloss Furnaces with Sound Tribe Sector 9 on September 1 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $37.50 and can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com. Learn more about the band at www.toubabkrewe.com.
Jesse Chambers is a Birmingham Weekly contributing editor. Send your comments to jesse@ bhamweekly.com.