Halfway Round the World & Back: Toubab Krewe’s West-African Appalachian Roots

Nov 26th, 2012 | By | Category: Feature

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The eclectic band Toubab Krewe will be playing at the Blind Tiger on Wednesday, November 28th. Mixing West African, traditional Appalachian, and world music stylings, Toubab Krewe creates highly danceable (or if you’re not the dancing type, highly swayable, or at the very least highly head noddable) tunes.

On Saturday, November 24th, Avant Greensboro chatted with djembe-ist Luke Quaranta about Appalachia, banjos, and Africa. Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation:


AG: How did the members of Toubab Krewe initially meet?

LQ: We’ve all had kind of a long history, two of the members grew up together, had known each other since they were about five or six, and another one of the original members had also grown up with them, and had known them since middle school. They all had worked on projects together in middle school, high school, and then college. I ended up meeting them down at college, we all went to Warren Wilson– the original drummer and the guitarist had all went there too. We all played together over the years, and had worked on various projects together, travelling to Guinea and Ivory Coast to study music when we were in college. In 2005 when we formed the band, we formed it around our passions for West African music, and since then we have brought in the Appalachian music that those guys really grew up with.


AG: Were all the members originally from North Carolina, or is it just where you met?

LQ: I grew up in New York, just outside of the city, and Dave grew up in Vermont, but everyone came together at Warren Wilson, our bass player too had lived in North Carolina. We all see it now as our second home, since we all came together there. Now we’re all spread out throughout the East Coast.


AG: When you were forming the band, did each of you come to your interest in West African music individually, or was it more that collectively you landed on the style?

LQ: It was actually a little bit of both and kind of serendipitous. Each of us came to West African music individually and because it was a shared interest, it kind of fed on itself. We all travelled together, which definitely fed the interest, and together we explored and studied West African music. It really was an organic process, and a continuous progression of study and exploring various styles and how they work together. The story of the band has been openness and willingness to explore all these different kinds of music and how they all work together.


AG: On first blush West African music and traditional Appalachian music seem quite disparate, but when you look at the history of both forms and the history of the instruments, like the banjo, they actually share similar roots. What has been your experience fusing these two sounds?

LQ: There’s so much history between the two forms, even the instrumentation. Justin plays a couple of different harps that are the roots of the banjo. A lot of the old time tunes that we play, when they’re played with the West African instrumentation, they sound like they were written for that kind of instrument. Our approach isn’t from an academic point of view, our approach is more of from the folklore point of view playing folk music and traditional music and it’s an organic way at the end of the day– playing from our hearts and seeing what works, a lot of the roots of both styles come apparent through the music.

Toubab Krew 2

AG: Speaking of folklore, do you see your role in anyway overlapping with that of the West African griot?

LQ: The griot culture is so specific to that culture, but yeah, in some indirect sort of way I could see that, for instance in bringing the tradition to those that don’t know about it, and making folks aware of music and a rich culture that they don’t know about, but I don’t know that we would say we play that role in the traditional sense.


AG: You played New Years last year at the new Blind Tiger, and the year before at their old location. What are your thoughts on the new venue?

LQ: I like both! The old space had kind of classic dive bar quality, in the best meaning, with all the history and the folks who have been playing there, and all the ambiance and coziness, the new venue is great though, and bigger. It’s been about a year since we’ve played in Greensboro, so we’re looking forward to it. Greensboro is great. We have some old friends living in the area who will probably sit in with us and collaborate with us.


AG: How did Toubab Brewe [Toubab Krewe’s beer] come about?

LQ: There actually was a friend of ours working at a brewery who was part of the management team, and they had the idea to come up with the brew, and we thought it would be a great chance to raise money for a music school that we’re raising money for in Bamako, Mali. It’s a music school for underprivileged children who wouldn’t have opportunities to go to music school otherwise. It’s a project we’ve been working on with one of our teachers for 3 years.


AG: The band has travelled to Africa numerous times. I was wondering about the very first time you travelled to the continent– what were your initial impressions, and how did they relate to what your expectations were?

LQ: Yeah, so, you know what, every trip was such a culture shock, especially early on. I’d never traveled in the third world, and never having been to West Africa before, culturally things were so different, and it was so economically poor, in a way that you don’t see in the States, it’s a whole different level. It’s definitely a major culture shock, but incredibly life changing. We were so well received by our teachers and the families that put us up who shared their music and their culture with us. Especially early on musically it was like having the rug pulled out from under you being able to wrap your mind around the way that rhythm works traditionally. It’s such a deep tradition– the canon, the traditional canon is so deep and rich and storied that it takes some time to adjust, and to play within it. Before we got into the melodic music I was really into the traditional drumming, which was really heavy, and like studying classical music. it really opened my eyes, and taught me about what it means to be alive to and be a musician. In West Africa musicians play such an important role that in the US they don’t necessarily play. It’s been an amazing journey each time I go there I learn more.


AG: As Americans playing West African music, how have you been received on your trips to West Africa?

LQ: Yeah no, I mean we’ve always been received with open arms, and there has been an openness to receive us. I think it’s because we’re really serious about our craft and that we’ve dedicated our lives to learning the music, I think the way the relationship has grown is interesting too. At first it was us, really taking the time to learn down to the minute details the music culture and style that had developed over 700-800 years, in an unbroken progression of music styles from different regions and how they developed, and even contemporarily it’s such a fluid tradition. There are roots, but the musicians there continue to push the envelope, and move the music forward. It was interesting to change from us being students, and starting our band, and developing our own take on the music, then going to the Festival au Desert, where there was a great reception, and really a kind of appreciation for the way we’d digested the music, and taken our own perspective, mixing rock and roll, and American music. There was a deeper respect because we were mixing in different styles, and developing new music rather than just regurgitating what we’d been taught note for note.


AG: Have you found differences or similarities in the ways that Americans respond to your music from the ways that West Africans would respond?

LQ: Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s like in West Africa, it’s like at weddings and different events, so many of the songs have specific dances that go with them. There is a process of reacting to the particular song, as opposed to Americans where once the crowd gets warmed up everyone is dancing and having a great time. These are weddings and baptisms and different events in street life. There are similarities and differences, because of the tradition there are responses from the crowd based on what’s being performed because the rhythms and songs have certain meanings that everyone knows.


AG: Well, that’s all we had. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

LQ: Yeah, we’re excited to come back to Greensboro. We just got done doing a benefit concert in New York for refugees fleeing violence and instability in Northern Mali. You can read more about it at our website. Folks should definitely check it out, and learn about what’s going on there.


Concert Details: Wednesday, November 28th, 2012 at the Blind Tiger, with John Brown’s Body. Doors at 8:00, show starts at 10:00. Tickets $15 in advance or $18 day of show. Check out for details!


Amy Greensfelder is a recovering Greensborite who currently lives in Baltimore, but can occasionally still be seen on the mean streets of our fair town out-running the only man in Greensboro who un-ironically sports an eye patch. As a proud Luddite she does not have any websites that we can link too (c’mon, she just learned how to use the ‘deposit’ function on an ATM last month, she can’t be expected to have a website). 

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