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Taking African influence to a new level

Toubab Krewe's instrumental sound created via tradition

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A lot of bands can say they're influenced by African rhythms, but few take it to the level of actually traveling to the continent to study the music and learn how to play it.

Asheville's Toubab Krewe has done just that. They've made a handful of trips to countries in West Africa -- Mali, Ivory Coast and Guinea -- to study with music legends such as Lamine Soumano, Vieux Kante, Madou Dembele and Koungbanan Conde. That knowledge and influence has translated into music which relies heavy on African instruments and the traditions that go along with them.

After all, how many bands can you name that use a kora (21-string harp-lute), kamelengoni (12-string harp-lute) and soku (Malian horsehair fiddle) in their music?

Toubab Krewe -- which means "foreigner crew" -- released its self-titled debut in 2005 and hopes to release its sophomore effort this year. The music ranges from originals to the band's take on traditional songs -- rearranging them to fit the quintet musically and emotionally.

"I think if you're too concerned with authenticity and reproduction into an exactness of the original, you're working too much from a cultural script," Heller says. "That makes sense in some realms, but there are narratives that are passed along more clearly when it's the language you grew up with. Even the most original players are inspired by something or someone else."

Heller says the band members have always had an interest in African music and a number of trips there have helped them to learn the traditional ways of playing the instruments. Heller says he hopes to be able to go back later this year.

The band's interest in music from that area started in high school when they were listening to a lot of percussion from Africa, especially from Guinea. He says learning a new instrument is a lot like learning a new language in that the format is a little different or your fingers bend a little different.

"I took my first trip there in 2001 and brought a guitar since it was the instrument I grew up playing," he says. "With the other instruments, it's a matter of exploring to find a similar form of expression. Some of them require a lot of endurance and they're harder on the hands. It's really a matter of doing it constantly and learning through the constant process of being a student."

As for the new album, the band is 70 percent finished at this point. Heller says the band has completed recording and is working on the post-production process. And while the band may be more mature three years since their debut, the sound remains the same.

"It's definitely Toubab Krewe -- it's not a massive departure," Heller says. "It's three years older ... we've got some whiskers. There's a more even mix between traditional tunes and original tunes. We're more comfortable in our skin."

He says the band doesn't feel limited by the fact they are an instrumental band, instead looking at each player as a singer that brings something different to the table.

The idea of bringing some of their teachers and mentors from Africa to record with them in the future is a possibility, though it didn't happen for the upcoming album. They have recorded in Africa though for others' albums. He adds that the hope is to have the new Toubab Krewe album released sometime this fall, most likely mid-September or mid-October.

The band often starts the writing process by playing a traditional song and then it slowly is altered as the band gets comfortable with it and it evolves from there.

"'Djarabi' is a love song that is played all over West Africa," Heller says. "When I first heard it, it shattered my image of music. Now, it's evolved over the years and is played differently by a lot of people. That song opened my eyes to the fact that tradition is a living thing."

Toubab Krewe will be at the Neighborhood Theatre at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 12. Tickets are $12.

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