Toubab Krewe’s Second Act

When the band began touring in 2005, Asheville-based Toubab Krewe quickly established itself as a formidable hybrid of African and Western musical traditions. High demand and seemingly boundless energy kept Toubab Krewe on tour almost nonstop for nearly a decade. But something had to give, and the group went on indefinite hiatus in 2014. After an extended break, Toubab Krewe has returned to touring, and has a new album being readied for release.

The six-piece group came together formally after several of its musicians had played together for some time. Guitarist Drew Heller says that he and Toubab Krewe’s kora (a West African 21-string instrument) player Justin Perkins grew up in the same neighborhood in Asheville. “In our elementary school days, we’d skateboard to each other’s houses and jam in the basement,” he recalls. They met percussionist Luke Quaranta when studying at Warren Wilson College. “We also met lots of fellow musicians and dancers who were interested in getting together and playing West African drumming and melodic music,” he says.

It was during that time that Heller, Perkins, Quaranta and some other friends first started traveling to West Africa, learning and playing music. The music they made bridged African styles with rock ‘n roll, but Heller says that the two forms aren’t as different as some might think. “Some of the heaviest rock and roll I’ve ever heard in my life was in clubs in Bamako, Mali,” he says. And Toubab Krewe, the band they would form, “felt like a seamless continuation of the path we’d been on since we were little.”

In October 2004, Heller and Perkins had just returned from a four-month excursion to Mali. “Luke picked us up from JFK International Airport,” Heller says. “We were fired up and just ready to keep playing music; we started touring almost immediately after that.”

Those early tours were exciting, successful and shambolic. “We had no idea what we were doing,” says Heller with a laugh. “We were all piled into our original bassist’s Silverado, just zigzagging around the Northeast. But it was really euphoric to continue traveling and playing music. We were at the right time in our lives to start touring. And for a long time, we never stopped.”

Heller has few regrets about spending a significant portion of his adult life as a touring musician, but admits that the band eventually grew weary of nonstop life on the road. “The only thing you’re doing most of the time is driving or waiting in line in the airport,” he says. “Not that it’s terrible or anything, but you’re spending your time just getting through the travel day.”

And that life wasn’t conducive to putting down roots. “Being on tour for too many years in a row, it started feeling like our roots were sparking and catching on fire as they dragged down the highway behind us,” Heller says. The members of Toubab Krewe wanted to be playing and writing new music, but they decided collectively to, as Heller says, “take a moment to get centered.” Bassist Justin Kimmel headed home to Brooklyn; Quaranta and drummer Terrence Houston returned to New Orleans, while Perkins and Heller came back to Asheville.

Heller says he has cherished his three years off the road and back in Asheville. But like his band mates—Toubab Krewe never “broke up,” so to speak—he’s remained quite busy musically here at home. “I like to play at 5 Walnut every Wednesday night,” Heller says, and he’s involved in Black Mountain-based band Floating Action as well as the Stephanie Morgan Band. Heller says he’s also been immersed “in a full range of projects” with his father, composer-producer Steven Heller.

But after time spent at home starting a family, Heller began to miss the road. His band mates felt the same. So this year Toubab Krewe eased itself back into action, first with some theme music for NPR’s Milk Street, a 15-date fall tour, and a new album due out in 2018. The band’s approach to touring has changed from the old days, however.

“Being away from touring has helped give us some good perspective,” Heller says. “We’re definitely planning on touring countrywide—and then worldwide— but not necessarily for six or eight weeks at a time.” He readily admits that the band had received advice years ago to tour in moderation. “But you can’t really hear that kind of advice when you’re younger,” he says.

Heller says that fans of Toubab Krewe’s previous releases are in for some surprises with the new Stylo album. He notes that the leadoff single, “That Damn Squash” doesn’t sound like the rest of the album. “We’re definitely not picking up where we left off,” he says. “The band has continually changed throughout our history. But the approach [on the new album] is the same in that we try to keep ourselves open for change, both in the moment and in longer-form change that occurs gradually.”