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Welcome to FLYP, a new online magazine that looks at the people and issues shaping America. Flip through this article for a truly interactive experience.

Planet of Sound: Out of Africa

By blending traditional African instruments with rock and zydeco, Toubab Krewe has created an international sound that’s all their own.

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Toubab Krewe, the name adopted by a group of five American musicians who have studied and traveled extensively throughout the African continent, is derived from the word toubab, which in the West African language of Wolof means “foreigner” or “non-African.”
It’s an apt moniker, because in their name and their music, the band embraces their outsider status as Westerners who are working to incorporate the instruments and sounds of West Africa into American musical traditions like rock, Cajun zydeco and surf guitar.
The resulting mix is at once hypnotic, funky and ecstatic, and certainly, always original.

Watch a video interview with the members of Toubab Krewe and live concert footage.


INTERNATIONAL INFLUENCES

The members of Toubab Krewe became fascinated with the continent in the late ’90s, when band members independently began incorporating African music into their own sounds.
Drummer Teal Brown and percussionist Luke Quaranta, who were intrigued by the magical pull of African drumming, may have been the first in the group to hit upon the idea. Reflecting on the duo’s first trip to West Africa in 1999, Quaranta says, “that’s when we first had a peak into the possibility of what we could do in a Western rock format—integrating all the things we grew up with and love with all this knowledge we have gained into the West African scene.”
A few years later, band mates Justin Perkins and Drew Heller traveled to Mali, spending four months learning more about the music as well as how to play the complicated traditional instruments involved. Soon enough, the entire band was deeply immersed in the exotic instruments they had discovered during their travels.
Along with the guitar, Perkins plays the kora, a 21-string instrument made from a calabash or gourd, as well as the kamel ngoni, a 12-string harp. Both instruments are native to West Africa and have rarely made their way into Western music.

The members of Toubab Krewe give FLYP the inside scoop on some of their favorite African musicians this interactive audio-visual map of Africa.

Quaranta, meanwhile, uses an arsenal of African drums and percussion to create a locked-in groove with Brown and bassist David Pransky. Not to be left out, rhythm and lead guitarist Heller plays the soku, a Malian fiddle that can sound eerily similar to a female voice.

RISING STARS

While their use of African instruments is essential to Toubab Krewe’s sound, the band’s earnestness is what really sets it apart.
According to Quaranta, he and his fellow band members are doing more than just appropriating or borrowing from the music of West Africa. Instead, they see themselves as “paying homage to the music’s roots. It is out of love and respect for the music that we do what we do.”
After years of visiting West Africa as apprentices, Toubab Krewe returned in 2007 as performers at the annual Festival in the Desert, which is held north of Timbuktu in the Malian Sahara. At the event, they performed on the same stage as some of Africa’s biggest stars, including Malian guitarist Baba Salah, Tuareg rock group Terakaft and kora master Toumani Diabate.
“Performing at the Festival in the Desert was a dream come true for us,” recalls Quaranta. “The response we got was incredible. It was a dream come true to get that kind of response from our teachers and from the musicians that have inspired us. It was a real special moment for all of us.”
Toubab Krewe’s live show has been earning them fans the world over. This year, their near-constant touring has helped to develop a fanbase that spans the continental U.S., as well as Alaska and Europe. Touring “is our way of life,” drummer Teal Brown says with a smile. “It has pretty much become our existence.”
Their live sound has become so integral to the band’s success that they have recently released a recording of their triumphant two-night stand last December in their hometown of Asheville, N.C. Live at the Orange Peel features eight previously unreleased songs, along with guest turns from fiddler Rayna Gellert and spoken word legend Umar Bin Hassan.
The album, currently available at Toubab Krewe concerts, showcases a band that truly thrives on stage, whether the venue is an enormous festival like Bonnaroo or a tiny bar in Alaska.
Future plans involve a full-length DVD release and a possible show abroad for New Year’s Eve. But in the meantime, they’ll continue to support Live at the Orange Peel, doing what they do best on a tour they hope will never end.

On Live at the Orange Peel, Toubab Krewe captures the infectious spirit of its shows. Listen to four songs from the album.