Toubab Krewe fuses American and West African styles into a sound all its own. Forming in Asheville, NC in 2005 the group has since performed all over the United States, including several trips to West Africa. Absorbing the local culture from their travels in such places as Mali, Guinea, and Ivory Coast, the band began to develop their sound into something unique. After breakout performances at Bonnaroo, Allgood and the legendary Festival of the Desert in Essakane, Mali, the band is poised for greater things to come. I had a chance to sit down and chat with Luke Quaranta right before their show at The Pour House in Raleigh, NC.
In several West African languages, including Bambara and Wolof, Toubab means "foreigner." "Krewe" is a reference to the New Orleans region's spelling of the word "Crew."
Interview By Maisie Leach
Photos courtesy of Toubab Krewe, David Oppenheiner
Justin Perkins (Kora, Kamelngoni, guitar, percussion)
Vic Stafford (drums, congas)
Drew Heller (guitar, piano, fiddle)
David Pransky (bass, guitar)
Luke Quaranta (Djembe, percussion)
HGMN: What have you guys been up to?
Quaranta: The last couple of weeks have been really fun. We've been traveling, started in Philly on Saturday of March 24th opening for Toots and the Maytals at the Blockley. Then we did like 4 nights with Marco Benevento which was like a ridiculous amount of fun. We did The State Theatre with him in Falls Church, VA and we did The Jefferson Theatre in Charlottesville. We also did The Cat's Cradle with him and we did Knoxville together so it was a blast. His bass player is great, plays with Ween and the drummer is also really good. Those guys sat in with us for a bunch of our sets. That was really fun. We've been doing it a lot the last couple years, doing double bills with bands that make sense like that, billing it to bigger rooms, just collaborating a lot between the bands. We did a room with Rubblebucket and John Brown's body....
HGMN: Where did you all grow up?
Quaranta: Drew and Justin, who play guitar and the harps, were born and raised in Asheville. Our first drummer, our founding member drummer who played for the first 6 years in the band was actually born and raised in Asheville.
HGMN: Where are you from?
Quaranta: I'm from New York. And our bass player Dave is from Vermont originally. The last couple of years we've all spread out a lot. Dave lives in Miami. Drew and our drummer Vic live in Atlanta. Justin has been living in San Francisco quite a bit and I'm in New York.
HGMN: Do I hint a Spanish accent?
Quaranta: Do I have one? You think?
Quaranta: Well, maybe, I don't know. All of my family is from Italy, 3rd Generation New York and Italian. I probably got like a weird mix of the South and New York. I've travelled a lot internationally so I don't know what I have.
HGMN: When did you start playing?
Quaranta: I started playing kind of late in my life. My mom is a drum session player and she was playing since she was a teenager and all through high school and college. My godfather was a singer songwriter and guitarist. He still writes music and plays. My Aunt, Elise, she played bass with my mom. My Mom's best friend Donna played guitar. I grew up watching them play in bands for parties and stuff. They'd play in bars. My mom said she was playing bar gigs when she was pregnant with me so you know, I was right there at the snare. I definitely always felt like it was in me. I was always around it.
Then I started playing this West African style stuff right after high school when I was 18. And then I did a lot of travelling out west, backpacking a lot of the time in the forest doing a bunch of solo trips in the Redwoods and Olympic National Park in Washington. I started playing a lot during that time period. When I started going to Warren Wilson College I joined this drum group on campus. The interest just grew and the passion for it was there. After 2 years of college myself and our former drummer, Teal, went to Guinea for a month to study with this master drummer named Koungbanan Conde...and it went on from there. So now I've been playing for 18 years. I love it...my hands are callused heavily. I love being a part of the community. I love the camaraderie between musicians and what we are doing culturally.
HGMN: Did you come down here for this band?
Quaranta: No. I went to school at Warren Wilson College in 97 in Asheville. And Drew, who's also our guitarist, also went to school there. He started a year after I did.
HGMN: What did you study?
Quaranta: I studied Political Science and Philosophy. It's a really cool spot. Warren Wilson is like this...now there's like 750 students there. When I was there it was like 550. It is one of 6 work colleges in the country and they also have this community service requirement to graduate. So it's like work, service and academics. Students work in all the administrative buildings and there's a 650 acre farm that does hormonal, antibiotic free beef...cows, pigs, all kinds of grain. I worked in this 7 acre organic garden for all 4 years so you spend 15 hours a week working for your work crew; painting, plumbing.
HGMN: What was your background/how'd you grow up?
Quaranta: It was a single parent household. My parents got divorced when I was 5...and my Dad was around but on the outskirts of New York. He actually ended up moving to Wilmington, NC when I was in high school. I was really close with all my siblings. There was 4 of us...we've always been very close. It was definitely like middle class, rougher at times. I grew up in New Rochelle which is just North of the Bronx....so if I walked more than 5 minutes in one direction I was in the projects; if I walked the other direction I was around multimillion dollar homes.
HGMN: You said you're playing with a lot of different people. What's your favorite thing that you have going on right now?
Quaranta: Toubab's definitely my favorite thing. It's been tunnel vision for so long with this project. We've been going; playing so much together...well over 1000 shows in our first 5/6 years you know. It's actually been a little refreshing. We were trying to take a little time off because we've been going on for 2 months at a time and taking 2 weeks off for years. You didn't really have an opportunity to just regroup and go right back to tour. It was hard to develop any life outside of the band. So I think it was good for us in a lot of ways. It definitely put us on the map and developed the music and our camaraderie quite a bit. We got to play a ton of festivals and play all over the states. Now we are trying to be a little smarter...go out for 2 or 3 weeks and take 2 weeks off so we aren't out for those 8/9 week stretches. We also have different goals, like we are trying to get overseas and focus on festivals and maybe be a little bit smarter about when we actually play.
It's been refreshing to have a month off in New York. I've been really branching out there, playing with some African acts. A friend of mine, Sam, has this band called Benyoro...they're really cool. Sam was actually touring with us quite a bit this winter. He did our New Years run with us and Jam Cruise and some other things, Sam and another percussionist named Weedie Braimah who is awesome too. We were going with a little bit larger of a setup with 7 of us. And It's been cool to be in New York and play with other groups. Playing with whoever...branching out. There are so many good players in New York. It's nice to be thrown into it and to be out of my comfort zone a little bit too.
HGMN: If you could say 1 good thing about everyone in your band what would you say?
Quaranta: About each one of them? Damn. I Mean, there's a lot. Drew is like one of the nicest, heartfelt, wouldn't harm a fly type of dudes. He has a huge heart and cares about people and he's a great guitarist. Justin is a freakin'... his life is music ...he'd be playing even if it was on his porch or at some cafe for 10 people. He pretty much lives for the music. He's always pushing...He loves the life...I mean loves the tour life. Dave is super outgoing and has great stage presence; super fun. One of the funniest dudes you can ever be around. He's super witty and very fun to hang with. Vic is like all about; he loves collaborating with other people. I've seen him in the middle of a festival set...spot a drummer offstage that he knows and basically hand him the sticks in the middle of the song and let this dude play. He's a very unselfish musician; he's all about the vibe and all about the music.
HGMN: Who does the songwriting?
Quaranta: It's very collaborative, there's no main songwriter. There's the whole aspect of what we do is like the public domain stuff, like traditional music that we arrange completely. There are very unique versions of the tunes even if they are older tunes. That's usually a very collaborative experience...like "oh this will sound good" or "listen to this break" or "what if I do this bass line here" or "what if I cut to this melody". It's just us in a room throwing out ideas and we are just throwing shit at the wall until something sticks...usually. And then Drew will bring in an original and be like "what can you do for the bass?" and I'll be like "well...." It's never someone who comes with written sheets and is like this is it. It's never been like that. Everyone brings what they bring to it and it develops.
HGMN: Are you guys close?
Quaranta: Yeah, at this point it's like best friends to brothers. It's crazy because you spend so much time together so it's like family. Justin and drew have grown up since they were 5 years old with each other. And our former drummer Teal, he knew them since middle school; Vic's known them for years and years. And Vic's friends with Teal, and that's how they became a band because Teal decided to step away and Vic was looking for a gig and it worked out perfect. I've known these guys now for 14 years so we are super close. It's a family band....It translates. I think people get that.
HGMN: Has there been a defining, memorable moment for TK?
Quaranta: I'd say All Good last summer. We had this amazing slot between Warren Haynes Band and Further. So we were in the Bowl. Further's crowd comes out, I mean they follow Further so the crowd swelled to the largest it was the entire weekend. And it was a sunset set by the time Warren ended and by our second song it was dusk. It was this experience of being in front of 30,000 people but still feeling so comfortable and also feeling like you didn't have to force it or do something out of the ordinary. We could just lay back in our music and that was good enough.
HGMN: Let's talk about your studio releases...
Quaranta: We did the first studio album in 05 and then we put out "Live at the Orange Peel" which is like 2 nights over New Years and we had Umar Bin Hassan on it which was dope. The 2nd studio came out in 2010, TK2. We phased it out...first digital and then did like an in stores kind of push.
HGMN: Are you guys pleased with the success of that?
Quaranta: Yeah. I think we are really pleased with the music. I mean, I feel like there could have been more...I'm pleased with it. The record didn't blow up or anything...all the press was good about it. It was a great record for us to put out because of the way we did it. The process was the right process for us at the time.
We had been touring so much and the reason we did the live record was because we had never really given ourselves time in the studio to take a deep breath and experiment. We had just been going in the studio for 2 or 3 days trying to cut all the tracks we were playing at the time and it never came out right. We never felt like it had fresh energy. So we did the recording at the Orange Peel and we said let's just put that out. That sounds like what these songs are supposed to sound like. These sounds developed on tour and it was a sold out crowd in our home town.
So then we finally went in the studio for 6 weeks and totally self financed it...went into Echo Mountain in Asheville for 6 full weeks and worked on this new record, basically wrote the entire record in the studio. We experimented with tones and sounds and everything that we wanted to do. It was a really good process for us. I think everyone was just happy that we did it that way and it sounded good. It's actually a funny story. We were going to re-release it in a different track order...more like the original order we had in mind. We had to change it originally for the label and radio or whatever... We cut the record like it was an album. We shouldn't have put it out like that. So now we are doing another printing and we are going to do it digitally and release it in Europe with the original order so...it might not be a big deal but for us it's kind of a big deal. It's the kind of record you can listen to all the way through and then you want to listen to it again.
HGMN: The business side of things must be tough to work through as artists. What can you say about that?
Quaranta: Yeah, the radio and business stuff can be challenging. We've found a lot of success with self managing. It seems like in the time periods that we have self managed everybody in the band is engaged in the whole process and really has to be in tune with what's happening. There's a sense that we have control of our own destiny and I know that we would all love...you know to have someone who totally has a vision for the group and say "okay, I know how to get you guys overseas and you guys should be playing in south America and playing in Europe and make a mark outside of the states". I think that's something we keep coming back to because we've toured so much in the states.
I think that everyone is really hungry to branch out because we've all traveled so much internationally...just going to West Africa and studying. We've played in Portugal and we've played in Jamaica and we've done 3 Jam Cruises. But yeah, the business side is a tough thing. I'm really happy with who we've worked with over the years. I think it's really good to work with Nat Geo (National Geographic) on the record side of things. They're really supportive and it's kind of a good fit for the band. We put out TK2 with them and we are doing another record with Nat Geo...which should be good, I mean our plan is to do it in West Africa, be there for about a month or 6 weeks and cut a record in Bamako with a lot of our teachers there and stuff...
HGMN: Lamine Soumano...
Quaranta: Yeah, he is/was pretty much all of our teachers but specifically Justin's kora (21-string harp-lute) teacher and guitar teacher. We met Lamine in 2001 when we were there right after college. I had a drum teacher named Madou Dembele who worked with us all through college. He was form New York; I met him in New York. We went and stayed with his family in Ivory Coast for about 6 weeks and we had a big drum and dance group from Warren Wilson...I did this big fundraising effort and brought this whole group to West Africa for 2 months. We went to Guinea and the Ivory Coast. When we were in Ivory Coast we met Lamine and there he started to give Drew guitar lessons. We stayed in touch...he's an amazing musician, choreographer, composer. He does a lot of arranging for a lot of peoples records. Justin and Drew went back in 2004 and spent like 4 months in Bamako, really kind of just getting into the scene and working on a lot of kora and guitar stuff. And they spent a lot of time with Lamine...when they got back from that trip that's when we started the band in early 05.
HGMN: What is it about West African culture that you guys are so fascinated by?
Quaranta: I think musically it's a really deep, rich musical culture. Going back thousands of years...there's this real connection to the past and in the present. Also, just being in West Africa, the sense of historical memory is so different from here. I feel like our memory here in the US is so short...everything is like immediate, in the present. Things that happen last election cycle, people forget about. But there, there's this real connection to history and people and the past, respecting that and how it plays into present existence. It really shows itself in the music.
There are these story tellers, a "Griot" or "Djeli" who pass down stories through music. You see that when you are there when you go to marriages or funerals. The singers sing to the families that are involved and there's a lot of praising and singing about your generational line. It's an amazing place. It's very poor but in a very rich area of the world. It's like the cradle of civilization. There are contemporary cities and then there's the village life. That is how it's been for a very long time.
There are all kinds of geo political realities that you could talk hours on. Recently there was a coup in Bamako a few weeks ago where there's a real divide between the south and the north. There always has been because it's such a different place geographically and culturally. The North is the Sahara desert and the south is sub-Saharan and so skin tone is different, language is different, culture is different. One of the groups on the North is rebelling and fighting for its independence. Mali has traditionally been very stable so this is upsetting and we are all hoping for the best. We've talked to the people who we are close to and we'll see. We will just keep on with our plans.
We are raising money...we've done a dollar per ticket...all last year we donated .50$ per ticket. We started this Toubab Brew in Asheville so the proceeds from every keg go to the school. We did a creative allies campaign and are making t shirts for that to just keep raising money. We are helping with building a music school for kids there in Bamako. That and doing the record over there are the biggest things on our plate.
HGMN: What can fans do to help you guys out with your efforts in building the youth music school?
Quaranta: Drink Toubab Brew if you're in Asheville...and we work donations into the ticket price.
HGMN: What is the brew like?
Quaranta: It's good. It's like a Bavarian lager. We tried to make it really light and drinkable. We were actually like, "can you make it as close to a Coors light as possible?" (Laughs) Which is really hard to do if you are a craft brewer, I've heard. But it's good, it's got like a craft finish and it is very drinkable. But yeah, people can donate anytime...and we are going to start a kickstart campaign so everyone can stay in tune and help raise money for the record project and help us get over there to break ground on the school...
HGMN: And you play the drums?
Quaranta: Yeah. I play percussion, like all West African style stuff, like the djembe, the dun-un which are like the bass drums you with play with sticks and the krin, another drum form of Guinea. I play this scraper form Southern Mali. I play tambourine, a little bit of harmonica and some backup singing.
HGMN: What do you listen to?
Quaranta: We all listen to a bunch of different stuff...a lot of Afro Cuban Music and lot of Western African music, Ethiopian stuff, Latin music, South American, Mexican music, mariachi music. And then we listen to everything else - Beatles, Zeppelin, classic rock, grew up on that. And all the soul stuff - James Brown, All the 70's, currently. I like a lot of Indie stuff...on Pandora I like the "Double XX" radio station. I really dug that Phoenix record. Radiohead, Hip Hop...I grew up in New York during the Golden Age...Wu Tang, Illmatic, and Biggie. All that shit. So it's a pretty wide range.
HGMN: Your music interests change and develop over time...Do you notice those things coming out without trying when you are playing?
Quaranta: Definitely. Certain influences will cycle back around and you'll be inspired by something you haven't heard in a long time. Something will come out and you'll be like where did this come from? And it's a part of you. A lot of Rock, Louisiana style stuff, Appalachia old time tunes coming out on our music right now. Latin tunes, a lot of traditional stuff. I think we have a real affinity for Folk and traditional music. Stuff that inspires us...a lot of stuff we play is public domain type stuff and it's us doing it with our own twist on it.
HGMN: What keeps you grounded?
Quaranta: A lot of things, family, loved ones. But also I think really our relationship with our friends and our teachers because the shit they have to deal with. World class musicians that have to deal with circumstances that are beyond what you can imagine in terms of just life...survival and some issues that they face in Africa. Being a musician there is not an easy lifestyle, you know. It's very difficult. Our relationship to that place and our relationships there keep us grounded. It always goes back to the music...you know, how are we affecting music? Are we creating positivity? Are we educating people and showing people a good time as a party band at the same time? I think that's the biggest thing. The respect for other musicians and the music, knowing there's people that are extremely good musicians who haven't gotten the notoriety that we have and who are bad mother fuckers. As long as we stay focused on the music things will take their course.
HGMN: What are you most proud of?
Quaranta: The way that our teachers and peers have responded to what we have been doing, our peers, who also play in the style that we play in and how they have reacted to us. We have been able to honor and respect by tradition but yet not be bound by it and be really creative and push the envelope and play from our hearts. And at the same time get feedback from teachers and peers that we are doing it. They like what we are doing. They like that we are pushing the envelope and doing something that hasn't just been done before. We are bringing together certain musical traditions in a way that no one ever has. I'm proud that we are playing this music, we know it, and knowing the traditions and not taking it for granted...and then we let our own influence come into play to create something original.
Toubab Krewe Spring / Summer Tour
April 27th, 2012 - Capital Ale House - Richmond, VA - Friday
April 28th, 2012 - Some Kind of Jam 7 - Schuylkill Haven, PA - Saturday
May 1st & 2nd, 2012 - The Maison Frenchmen - New Orleans, LA - Tuesday & Wednesday
May 4th & May 5th, 2012 - Brooklyn Bowl - Brooklyn NY - Friday & Saturday
May 11th & May 12th, 2012 - Martyr's - Chicago, IL - Friday & Saturday
May 23rd, 2012 - Brighton Music Hall - Allston, MA - Wednesday
May 24th, 2012 - Jonathon's - Ogunquit, ME - Thursday
May 25th, 2012 - The Colonial Theatre - Bethehem, NH - Friday
May 26th, 2012 - Strange Creek 2012 - Greenfield, MA - Saturday
May 31st, 2012 - 1884 Lounge - Memphis, MN - Thursday
June 1st, 2012 - Stickyz Rock'n'Roll Chicken Shack - Little Rock, AR - Friday
June 3rd, 2012 - Wakarusa Festival - Ozark, AR - Sunday
June 6th, 2012 - Club Dada - Dallas, TX - Wednesday
June 8th & June 9th, 2012 - Lambert's - Austin, TX - Friday & Saturday
June 23rd, 2012 - Founder's Fest - Grand Rapids, MI - Saturday
July 7th, 2012 - Great Blue Heron Music Fesitval - Saturday
July 13 & 14, 2012 - Toubab Krewe's Carnavalito - Pisgah Brewing Company - Black Mountain, NC - Friday & Saturday
July 22nd, 2012 - Gathering of the Vibes @ Seaside Park - Bridgeport, CT - Sunday
July 26th, 2012 - Nottoway Park - Vienna, VA - Thursday
July 27th & 28th, 2012 - Floydfest - Blue Cow Pavillion MM - Floyd, VA - Friday & Saturday
August 11th, 2012 - Peach Music Festival - Scranton, PA
August 21st, 2012 - Hudson Square Music & Wine Concert - New York, NY - Tuesday
2011 Toubab Krewe - TK2