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Toubab Krewe probes African music and so much more in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
C. Taylor CrothersNorth Carolina quintet Toubab Krewe performs Monday at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN – The product of a musical family from the western part of North Carolina, Justin Perkins settled behind a drum kit at an early age. By the time he was in fifth grade, Perkins was teaming up with Drew Heller, a buddy since they were 5, to play music, with Perkins pounding out the rhythms to Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown.

But Perkins also had some familiarity with banjos and fiddles, and as he grew older, he yearned to move into a melodic instrument. It wasn’t till his early 20s, on a trip away from home, that he settled on the string instrument of his dreams: the 21-stringed harp known as the kora.

“I had never found one that made sense,” Perkins said of his quest for the right instrument. “Then I found the kora, and it made sense.”

It should be explained that the trip in question was one far from North Carolina. Perkins, who as a drummer had developed a deep interest in African rhythms, discovered the kora in its home land, the West African country of Guinea.

“I had never held one or played one,” the 31-year-old said. “But the first or second day there, I asked the guy I was staying with about it. The next day, he had a friend bring over a kora, and I fell in love with it.”

Back in the U.S., after three months in Guinea and the Ivory Coast, Perkins and Heller changed their focus. With Perkins on kora, and then the 12-stringed kamelengoni, and Heller learning the soku, a Malian take on the fiddle, the two introduced a significant African component into the music. With another longtime friend from Asheville, Teal Brown, on drums, and some acquaintances from the Warren Wilson College community, they formed Toubab Krewe.

The band – which includes David Pransky on bass and Luke Quaranta on percussion – performs Monday at Belly Up, in their first Aspen appearance since 2006. Singer-songwriter Cas Haley, a Texan who was a runner-up on the TV competition “America’s Got Talent,” opens.

After forming, in 2005, Toubab Krewe quickly released a self-titled album. The heavy African influence came not only from listening to records, but from repeated travels to West Africa. The members of Toubab Krewe, either in pairs or sometimes as the full group, made six trips to Africa between 1999 and 2007.

“You can only learn so much in western North Carolina,” Perkins said. His first trip, he said, was “overwhelming. Life-changing. Humbling. Gives you quite a different perspective on the world, in a good way.”

Perkins has made two more trips to Africa, with the focus always on music. “You start at lunchtime on the front porch, take lessons all day, and at night you go to clubs or weddings or ‘spectacs,’ as they call them. It’s pretty much wall-to-wall music, all day.”

Toubab Krewe has absorbed the music well enough to have made appearances at such major festivals as Bonnaroo, Rothbury and Vegoose; in 2007, they performed at the Desert Music Festival in Mali.

Last year, the band went into Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studio and spent six weeks writing and recording their second studio album, “TK2.” The album was released in September – on Nat Geo Music, a label owned by National Geographic – and it doesn’t take especially keen ears to notice that Toubab Krewe isn’t trying to mimic what they’ve learned in Africa. “Nirvana the Buffalo” rides along on surf guitar; “Holy Grail” has an element of industrial rock; “Sirens” is inspired as much by Mississippi bluesman RL Burnside as by anyone they met in Africa.

“Having grown up with so many forms of music, it seems like African music is just a little piece of the puzzle,” Perkins said. “But you spend the time and money going to Africa, and it seems like that makes it a bigger piece. But I think we treat surf, Cajun, Appalachian, old-time rock ‘n’ roll the same way we treat African. It just takes a little more time and focus to put that piece in there.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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