Exclusive: On the Road with Toubab Krewe

Photo: Daniel Barojas
Photo: Daniel Barojas

You may not have head of them yet, but if you’ve found yourself tapping toes to Vampire Weekend, or loved the new Amadou & Mariam album as much as we did, then you owe it to yourself to learn a little more about Toubab Krewe, who consistently churn out incredibly soulful West African music. Also, go see them live. We haven’t danced, sweated, and smiled so much in a long time. They’re in the middle of a huge tour (that said, they’re pretty much always touring) right now, but we caught up with percussionist Luke Quaranta for a few words on griot culture, Vampire Weekend, and what it means to be a foreigner.

Flavorwire: First off, how did five white kids from North Carolina get into West African music?

Luke Quaranta: Well, it truly has been an organic process. First, developing a common interest in African music as friends, becoming keen students of traditional West African music, and finally forming the band. I think at the moment we formed the band we did so… with a deep sense of creative license. There was a feeling of liberation, as we were playing the traditional music we had learned with instrumentation, and in a format we were so comfortable with, that we had grown up in. Drum set, electric bass, electric guitars, along with Kora, Kamel Ngoni, Djembe, Dununs, etc. There was a very natural fusion of sounds taking place.

FW: According to Wikipedia, “In several West African languages, including Bambara and Wolof, Toubab means ‘foreigner.'” We guess it could have been lonely in Carolina playing African music, at the beginning. Do you guys see yourselves as innate foreigners? The way you bridge two wildly different — although not necessarily oppositional — musical cultures serves to make you uniters, as opposed to isolationists.

LQ: No doubt, we definitely see ourselves more as uniters than isolationists. What you said of loneliness makes me think of the culture shock that has come along with the numerous trips we have taken to West Africa. Of course, at first it was more significant arriving there, and experiencing so much that was new and different. But as the years have gone by, it shifted, and at times the shock of returning to the States has been more powerful. Personally, it has allowed me to question our own cultural norms, and see how they have shaped my life. Ultimately, I think we used “Toubab” as a way to claim our roots as Americans, but simultaneously embrace our West African musical frame of reference, by defining ourselves in West African terms. Our music definitely lives between worlds, and I hope we can do our part to help make both West Africa and the States less foreign to one another.

FW: OK, onto the inevitable. Vampire Weekend. Has reception to your music changed since those guys hit the big-time with their take on Afro-pop?

LQ: No, I don’t think so. We are all part of a larger cultural movement and moment. More significant to us in terms of the public’s awareness and openness to our music is the simultaneous development of many West African artists in the U.S. Orchestra Baobab of Senegal and Amadou and Mariam of Mali have played at Bonnaroo; Toumani Diabate and Bela Fleck will perform there together this year, along with Femi Kuti and King Sunny Ade. Amadou and Mariam have worked with producers Manu Chao and Damon Albarn. Diplo has brought global awareness to very localized and underground musical cultures…

FW: What you guys play is obviously quite different (for one, you’re an instrumental group, playing traditional instruments), but you both do fuse African and American musical elements. Can you expound on your fusion vs. theirs?

LQ: Well, to be honest I don’t know that much about Vampire Weekend’s African influences. I have read that they are fans of certain Southern and Central African styles, and these elements are part of their sound. I have listened to their record, and we actually had a chance encounter during a post-show sunrise breakfast in Denver. My sense is that they have much deeper roots in American pop music culture, whereas our roots are in both American and West African traditional music.

FW: Why instrumental? There seems to be such a strong oral tradition in West Africa from the griots, we would have thought you guys would incorporate an aspect of storytelling in your music.

LQ: I believe all of us in the band have an affinity for instrumental music… I think part of it comes from our appreciation and study of traditional music. And, ironically, our understanding of West African music does not fully extend to the content of the stories being told since our knowledge of Bambara and other dialects is very limited. Even though we deeply appreciate the griot culture, I think we are called to tell stories through our instruments.

FW: You’ve been to West Africa several times to work with musicians there; can you turn our readers on to some other West African artists who you guys dig or respect?

LQ: We dig Toumani Diabate, Oumou Sangare, Orchestra Baobab, Super Rail Band of Bamako, Bembeya Jazz National, Tinariwen, Ali Farka Toure, Afel Bocoum, Bassekou Kouyate, Percussions de Guinee, Ballets Africain, Neba Solo, Ankata, Salif Keita, Youssou N’dour and many more… we have had the pleasure of meeting and sharing the stage with many of these artists.

FW: What else are you listening to right now?

LQ: Well, in addition to all the West African artists above, we’ve been listening to Barrington Levy, Rafael Saadiq, Keith Frank, “Backspin” on Sirius, Al Green’s new record, Kid Cudi, Midnite, Mad Professor, and Fernando Moutchatcha…

Check Toubab Krewe’s MySpace for spring/summer tour dates.