ver the last half century, Greater Cincinnati has been a place where grooves of all stripes and genres have been cultivated in various nooks and crannies. From Reggae, Salsa, Funk and Bluegrass to the Blues, Punk, EDM and Hip Hop, an assortment of beats and rhythms can be heard coming out of a variety of venues and apartment windows in the Queen City on a given day.
On Thursday night, Asheville, N.C.-based band Toubab Krewe will add to that mix when they bring their Rock-infused World music jams to Covington’s Madison Theater.
What sets Toubab Krewe apart from other World music-oriented acts based in the U.S. — some of which think that just because you play a djembe drum you are a World music artist — is that the members of the band have traveled extensively to Africa to learn at the hands of master musicians. Multiple trips to the Ivory Coast and Mali to take instruction from an impressive list of great artists have not only brought authenticity to the sound of Toubab Krewe, it has also made them a part of the fabric of those faraway lands.
In Mali, for example, Toubab Krewe’s members (Justin Perkins, Terrence Houston, Drew Heller, David Pransky and Luke Quaranta) are helping to build and sustain a music school under the tutelage of musician and teacher Lamine Soumano through money derived from their ticket sales, as well as from profits from the band’s own beer called Toubab Brewe.
“I grew up playing a drum set since I was a little kid and then got into African drums,” Perkins, who plays electric guitar and various traditional African string instruments in the band, says. “Then, I remember going to drum circles at (North Carolina’s) Lake Eden Arts Festival, which used to be the Black Mountain Festival, and you’d see a bunch of people sitting around banging on drums and I would think, ‘There has got to be something deeper than this.’ It was cool and people were having fun, but it runs a little deeper.”
“Then, lo and behold, you end up at the actual source of the (music’s) root in Africa while sitting on someone’s porch getting your ass handed to you by 7-year-old kids. The thing about Africa is the cool jams happen on the porch every day. In Mali, Guinea and the Ivory Coast, because they are Muslim countries in that part of Africa, Thursdays and Sundays (are) when they have all of the weddings and it is like a street party or a big block party. They block off part of the street and put up a tent and play music.”
After the members of Toubab Krewe were accepted into the various African neighborhoods and music scenes they visited (the aforementioned musician/teacher Soumano named one of his sons after Perkins and Heller), special collaborations began occurring.
“The favorite jam that I have ever experienced, probably in my whole life, was one where I wasn’t jamming but was just watching,” Perkins says. “My teacher Lamine Soumano, my other teacher Vieux Kante and Drew’s teacher Zoumana Tereta, these are like three of the best dudes that exist on the planet. This was in Mali and we conspired to make this happen and Lamine helped to work this out.”
“It was seven in the morning and they all ended up at the house and just dug into it,” he continues. “It was a meeting of the minds. It was good and I got it on video. The thing about music like that is it’s a language. It’s a conversation. When people know how to talk and how to converse with each other, that is why music is such a special thing. It’s all pocket. At the end of the day, it’s all just country-ass porch music. I’m from Asheville and grew up in North Carolina with banjos and fiddles and that kind of music. It doesn’t matter what part of the world you are in, when it comes to traditional music, it’s all about the pocket. It’s dance music. It’s celebratory. It’s on the porch and it’s about having a good time and making people feel good.”
In Toubab Krewe, along with guitar and percussion, Perkins plays two stringed instruments native to West Africa, the kora, with 21 strings, and the kamel ngoni, a 12-string harp that is “from the same family of instruments that the banjo comes from,” the musician says.
“Growing up in North Carolina, they have the same exact saying about the fiddle that they do about the kora in Africa — ‘You can spend half of your time tuning it, but the other half of the time you play out of tune, so just get close,’ ” Perkins says.
One suggestion made to Toubab Krewe’s members by their West African teachers was to understand and respect the music’s origins and traditions, but don’t be afraid to experiment and add new, personal touches.
“In Africa, it is like anywhere else,” Perkins says. “You have traditionalists, but you also have people that are pushing the envelope with modern stuff. What is cool to me is that my (teachers) both said, ‘You know, you all aren’t Africans. You are playing African instruments, but you can do whatever you want with it. Learn the root of it and learn tradition, but then you are free to do whatever you want.’ It’s music. It’s wide open. It’s cool. But learn tradition first and go from there.”
TOUBAB KREWE performs Thursday at Covington’s Madison Theater. Tickets/more info: madisontheateronline.com .