Feathers may ruffle, but musicians in the majority of bands on the current jam circuit should be infamous for deceptive lethargy. Instead of invention, innovation or even melodic inversion, jammers on the scene are content to tool around with orthodox scales and chords just to keep the groove going, forsaking passion for, well, perpetuity. Sure, umpteen-minute jams require persistence and resilience, but Jones, Tyner, Garrison and Coltrane aren’t important because part three of A Love Supreme is nearly 18 minutes long.
Asheville’s Toubab Krewe is a long-overdue exception, a challenge to the convention that playing long and easy best rewards an audience. Instead of circuitous jamming, the band moves quickly and efficiently through complex instrumental numbers, combining Western drums, bass and guitar with the African kora (22 string chordophone), kamel ngoni (sonically mistaken for the harp) and soku (horse-hair fiddle). For Toubab Krewe, making music revolves solely around intensity.
“The live show is pretty high energy and pretty rowdy, but the musical forms that we have all grown up with have had a fair amount of structure in them, especially the percussion and the West African djembe ensemble,” says guitarist Drew Heller.
Since 1999, members of the group have traveled together–and with members of Common Ground, a djemble ensemble several of them joined at Warren Wilson College–to West Africa to study the native music, immersing themselves in the culture it was borne of. So far, they have explored drumming and instruments in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali.
But their African interests don’t restrict Toubab Krewe, a band surprisingly capable of incorporating elements of other folk musics–hip hop’s rhythmic magnetism, jazz’s acceptance of tonal complexity, bluegrass’ nimble nature and melodic playfulness–without being transparent, trans-Atlantic fusionists. The band manages to sound wholly sincere in its seamless efforts to blend the international flavor they’ve learned with the domestic stylings they were born into, and that’s a rare feat in a cosmos inhabited by jam bands that sound, most often, like flaccid, head-nodding imitations of their idols and intentions.
That proclivity to progress has, in a year’s time, made Toubab Krewe one of the hottest live properties on the East Coast. After debuting as a band in January 2005, they quit their jobs in March and hit the road full-time. They practice every day when not on the road and play shows at every chance. The ambition is working: Their eponymous debut is reason enough to believe, and their buzzed-about live show is beginning to sell out in major markets.
“We’re having the time of our lives,” says Heller. “And we’re pretty happy with the idea of this being our lives.” x
Toubab Krewe plays with Jaafar at the Lincoln Theatre on Friday, March 17. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door.