If you were at last year’s Bonnaroo, or this year’s Hangout Festival, you might have run into Toubab Krewe. They were the white dudes creating flawless and funky West African-inspired music, and bringing down the house in the process. Their latest album, Live At The Orange Peel, finds them mining the same groove, to fantastic results. We talked to guitarist Drew Heller about the Krewe’s righteous blend of African flavors and indigenous spices.
You’ve said in interviews that West African music blends together well with American rock music. Can you expound on that?
The aesthetics of American rock share a lot in common with the aesthetics of West African pop music. Upon first traveling to Guinea, Ivory Coast and Mali, I was wonderfully shocked by the volume, the distortion, and the bombastic energy of musical performances both in traditional settings and in contemporary ones. The spirit of unlikely collaborations is vibrant. The sounds of American rock, pop, country, and soul have been listened to and incorporated for a long time in West Africa. Meanwhile, America’s musical traditions are rooted deeply in African traditions. The cross-pollination of these sounds and styles isn’t new, more like a constantly evolving conversation.
West African music is not a particularly popular genre in the States, but your band has managed to have a lot of success here. Why is that?
All of our time and energy go into the music. It is a labor of love. We take care of the music and music takes care of us. Persistence helps too. We have been touring relentlessly for 5 years (200+ concerts a year). Hopefully West African music will continue to come in closer and closer on the radar of the eyes and ears of the West.
On your albums, would someone well versed in West African music be able to tell you were from America just by listening?
The music we make is equal parts American and African in theory, but our mother tongue as musicians is North American music, so I think we certainly have an accent so to speak. We have often been told by West Africans that when they heard our music for the first few times on the radio that they did not imagine the musicians to be non-Africans. It really depends on the song too. When we are full throttle rocking, our Americana nature is a bit more pronounced than during our calmer moments.
How much songwriting, versus arranging and other things, goes on with the band? What was the evolution from the first album to the second like?
The songwriting occurs in the nooks and crannies of time: before or after concerts, during the week(s) off we have between tours, and sometimes while we are driving down the road. We were in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago and we played a late Thursday night concert at Tipitinas. After the show, despite being 3 am, there was a lot happening around the neighborhood. As my band-mates dispersed into late night shenanigans around town, I ended up sitting in the back lounge of the bus with my 12 string guitar, playing well past the sunrise. It was during these hours that an amalgamation of an old song I began writing about 5 years ago reappeared. I ended up scrambling to find my laptop and I recorded about 5 minutes of the song so that I would not forget it. So many songs have been written and then lost over the years due to neglect. Holding onto a newly written song, not neglecting or forgetting it, so that it may eventually find it’s way into the collaborative workspace for arranging etc is one of the most difficult challenges of the road. A lot of songs end up taking a year or more to find their way into an arranged form that may be performed.
During the recording of our upcoming studio album, TK2, we spent a lot of time improvising together and several new songs sprang forth from this process. My favorite is “One Night Watkins”, which is actually the first notes we played on the first day of the first session. It is a total improvisation but the energy is focused and we ended up finding some beautiful territories. The song “Holy Grail” was spawned by a couple of seconds of improvised music that we played during the same initial session. We spent a lot of time listening to what we had played, taking notes and then we would go back and record some more and listen again, start the whole process over. It felt great to have the time to play music together all day, and listen to music all day. The process of writing and recording like this, with ample time in a relaxed environment, proved successful with our band’s collective personality.
Does music without lyrics reach people in ways music with lyrics can’t?
Yes! Music without spoken language carries the potential to evoke emotions and meanings that exist outside of the realm of what is experienced by means of spoken and written languages. It’s mode is more abstract but no less potent. A room full of people can hear the same song, dance together and share a collective experience but not be bound to one single narrative’s meaning.
The live album features Umar Bin Hassan of The Last Poets. What did he bring to the table?
Umar’s poetry is beautiful as is his energy. He is an amazing storyteller. It is an honor to work with a master of the spoken word.
Tell us about the track “Fire” on your MySpace page? Who’s singing?
We recorded “Fire” in Kingston, Jamaica. We stayed with Earl “Chinna” Smith at his house/studio and played music around the clock. I have never seen or heard anything like what I experienced there. Chinna has a recording studio set up in his living room and is always writing, recording, or producing music. Lots of different musicians were hanging out all day and night. Songs would break out of conversation and continue along morphing into choruses that everyone would sing together until the next improvised line or verse would bring about the next shared chorus. The harmony singing I heard was beautiful. Conversation would fade back in until the next round of music-making would begin. There is a drum-set on the porch and instruments everywhere. We ended up recording a lot of music while we were there and collaborated with several different vocalists. The singer on the track, Fire, is Lukan I. Along with the Krewe, Leroy Horsemouth Wallace is playing drumset, Chinna is playing acoustic guitar, Bear is playing percussion. Our friends Kai Wakeling and EQ sang back up vocals. We’d love to travel back to Kingston and record again sometime soon.
Who would you love to jam with or share the stage with?
Toumani Diabate, Outkast, Lamine Soumano, Keith Frank, Mah Kouyate, Asheville Horns, Rayna Gellert, a string quartet, Salif Keita, Doc Watson, my brother Elliot Heller, my dad Steven Heller, Edgar Meyer, Irma Thomas, Soul Rebels Brass Band, Roosevelt Collier, Adam Deitch…the list goes on.
Talk a little about your different trips to Africa. What were the formative ones like?
The first trip to West Africa, like all of our trips, was immersion/homestay style. My first day in West Africa, in Conakry, Guinea, was hot and confusing but amazing. I enjoyed attempting to understand a single word of Susu and Malinke and failing to understand a thing. My french skills at that point were basically non-existent. At first, music and dance was the only method of communication that felt coherent. We spent most of every day engaged in music-making, either in intense multi-hour lessons, or hanging out and observing someone else’s lessons. We learned a lot by osmosis. Lots of things we were learning took some time to sink in. You’d struggle all week with something, and then out of the blue it felt like you’d always been playing it. We would venture out into the neighborhood(Tombolya) to go buy a cold soda every now and then. We spent a lot of time playing music casually in the evenings. When you are pushed to the absolute limits of what you are capable of learning, it makes you really appreciate the abilities that you have already developed. I remember having a lot of great jam sessions at the end of the day with new songs coming and going like it was nothing. Each successive trip has been richer than the last especially as spoken and cultural languages are becoming more illuminated.
What kind of non-western instruments do you play in the band?
Justin Perkins plays two different West African harps: the 21 string Kora and the 12 string Kamel Ngoni. The kora is a large gourd that has been cut in half. An animal skin is stretched over the open half of the gourd. A long wooden neck runs from the inside base of the gourd to about 3 feet above the top of the gourd. A rectangular wooden bridge stands on top of the skin and attaches the kora’s 21 strings to the friction tuners. The Kamel Ngoni has a similar construction except that instead of a gourd, Justin’s Kamel Ngoni is built out of a gas can, like his late teacher, Vieux Kante, used.
Luke Quaranta plays the djembe drum, an hourglass-shaped wooden-bodied drum that uses rope to pull animal skins tightly around the upper rim of the drum.
I play a Soku which is a small one string fiddle made of similar construction to a kora, just much smaller. The soku’s one string is made from horsehair and the bow is made from horsehair as well.
What’s next for the band?
We are releasing our new record, TK2, as soon as we can. Once TK2 is released, we will be traveling the world in support of it. At least, that’s the plan.
On June 26th, we will be performing a free concert in Central Park, New York City. It will be Toubab Krewe, Omar Souleymane, and Tinariwen. We have been dreaming of playing at Central Park for a long time. It will great to link back up with Tinariwen. We played together at The Festival au Desert in Essakane, Mali, in 2007, and then again in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2008.