What do you call an Asheville musician in Mali? "Toubab" works for most folks in that region. Loosely translated it means "Hey foreigner" -- or in this case, "Hey American." But for the foreigners from Asheville visiting Mali to study that country's music, it didn't feel like a derogatory term. "In some ways we are foreigners, to the music," says Toubab Krewe's Luke Quartana. "But in the same way, we've embraced it whole-heartedly and now can bring somewhat of a foreign music to audiences here."
The band chose the Krewe tag as a nod to New Orleans, which has served as a gateway for African and Caribbean styles that influenced funk and jazz. But the music is not what you'd expect from an Asheville-based band. Though guitarist Drew Heller is well-versed in old-time and proficient on fiddle and banjo, and bassist Dave Pransky is a former mandolinist, the Krewe's sound is rooted in West Africa, blended with rock, funk and surf.
Heller grew up in Asheville with former drummer Justin Perkins, who now performs on kora, and percussionist Teal Brown. The trio formed Common Ground, a percussion and dance ensemble. Quartana is an outsider from NYC who met Common Ground in Asheville after college. Pransky joined the group after being exposed to the music through his sister, a dancer in Common Ground.
All have made pilgrimages to Guinea, with Perkins and Heller spending four months there in 2004, just before the group officially formed.
Many bands in recent years have incorporated African drums into their sound and lineup, but few Western musicians have made use of the kora. The 21-stringed instrument has been traditionally played by griots, West African musical families who serve as historians, cultural ambassadors and are considered musical royalty, with ancestry traceable back to the 13th century. The technique is handed down from generation to generation.
Malian kora player Mamadou Diabaté, who now resides in Durham, is a member of a very old and respected musical family which includes cousin Toumani, revered as the world's finest kora player. Diabaté confirms that kora playing was once limited to griot families. "Used to be like that, but these days no rules. Anybody will come to play the kora."
The Krewe's interest and efforts impressed Malian kora masters enough to share their techniques. "We've just been real fortunate to have real good teachers who've been open to teach us in the same way they would teach a son or a cousin." Quartana says. "It's something that is not written down -- so it's something you need to sit with a teacher just like in its traditions."
But learning to play the instrument is only the first step on a long journey. There are no kora stores -- players usually build their own. "You go to market to buy gourds. Go to place to get a cow skin. Then you can build it," Diabaté says.
Recently, Seattle woodworker/blacksmith Jeff Bodony developed an interest in kora-making and now has a company called Mandinka Magic, turning out some of the finest in the world despite never having been to West Africa. He's even improved on the original design, installing tuning pegs instead of the traditional braided calfskin pullets which encircled the neck of the dinosaur-necked instrument, tuned by pulling up or down on them. Perkins, who had previously owned several traditional koras, bought one, as did Mamadou's cousin Toumani. "With the amount of traveling we do in terms of climate change, it got to the point that he wanted to invest in one from Mandinka Magic and it's been great -- sounds beautiful."
By itself, the kora sounds like a harp, but Diabaté says that he, as well as other kora players of his generation, have changed the sound by listening to music of the streets and incorporating that into the music. Diabaté put Chicago blues on his first album and says he can do anything from folk to rock to bluegrass on the kora because he listens to other musicians.
Quartana says that one of the most inspiring things about the Toubab Krewe project has been the positive feedback they've gotten from African musicians and audiences about what they're doing with the music. "They're inspired by seeing us stay true to the tradition and be creative, let our own style stand right alongside the West African styles in our music. I can't tell you how much it inspired us to move forward and continue to do what we do."
Their experimentation is not only limited to assimilating various forms of American music into the West African sounds. The band has recently gone back in time to explore another region, getting into Ethiopian music from the 1970s. Quartana also wants the band to educate its audience on how diverse the continent is. "People sometimes think about Africa and only have that one picture in their head of safaris or poverty or disease, but it's such an incredibly vast and rich continent, with musical styles from all over that sound completely different with different instrumentation, even within West African music, even within Mali. From the North, the desert with Ali Farka Touré to the South the Wassalou music of Oumou Sangaré -- its quite different."
Meanwhile, the group's instrumentals are winning over the citizens who call them toubab. Quartana says, "West Africans in general who come and see us play, they just can't believe it -- they just freak out."
Toubab Krewe play the Neighborhood Theatre, with special guests Dubconscious; Dec. 22; 9 p.m.; $11; www.neighborhoodtheater.com.