Douglas Mason, Getty Images As predicted, Mountain Jam will return to Hunter…
- Posted on Sep 7th 2010 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
C. Taylor Crothers
Drew Heller, guitarist for the North Carolina-based Afro-jam band Toubab Krewe, is standing in a Nashville parking lot talking on his cell phone about the band's musical journey. It's a trip that's gone from childhood friendship to West Africa adventures, the latter providing the signature sounds that have made the group's undulating mix of kora, electric guitar, bass and percussion a favorite of the Bonnaroo crowd. This is a trek these five friends have taken together starting when Heller and kora player Justin Perkins started playing music together in school as 10-year-olds in the fifth grade.
And then the band's tour bus starts to roll without him.
Well, that little if perfectly timed misstep aside, the journey – which has taken them to Africa four times -- can be traced in an arc that plays out on the instrumental band's new album, "TK2," its first studio set in five years. (Hear the entire album here at Spinner's Listening Party this week.) As they prepare to head to Africa for a fifth time in early 2011 to reconnect with mentor Lamine Soumano and help build his music school, as well as soak in the sounds via jams with various locals, they've taken the opportunity on the new album to recapitulate the music that's brought them to this point.
"It definitely starts with a bit more of our childhood," he says, noting that the arc wasn't intended initially, but it just worked out that way. "I guess you could say it's indigenous roots – but American cross-pollination of immigrants and all kind of styles."
The roots in question, though, are not exactly 'Barbara Allen' and 'Crossroads.'
"Definitely heavy Led Zeppelin," he says, citing an English group famously influenced by American music. "Heavy Jimi Hendrix. Heavy Tom Petty. And really, for good measure, when we were first playing in bands in the fifth grade and whatnot, lots of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana."
And in fact, right after the album opens with the bouncy piano-based (!) 'Mariama,' it kicks into high gear. Those early connections are even there in the second song's title: 'Nirvana the Buffalo.'
Toubab Krewe, 'Nirvana the Buffalo'
And from there the trip continues.
"It was around the sixth grade when Hendrix and Zeppelin took over in a certain way," Heller says, noting that his parents and older siblings kept that music a forward presence. "Simultaneously, there was another influence that had been around my whole life that took a while for me to embrace: It was old-time Appalachian music and more traditional country music. Had always been around, but it was maybe eighth grade when I started playing banjo and ninth grade I started learning the fiddle."
It was much later that the musicians got introduced to the sounds of West Africa – all the way to when they were in high school!
"That was definitely a life-changing event," Heller says. "In a lot of ways, it was a slow event. First heard it in context of recordings of traditional music from Guinea, primarily, and then started learning West African rhythms in high school with drum builder Gordon Ray who we had the great serendipity of crossing paths with in Asheville. But flash forward four years to traveling to Africa and being there and hearing it and feeling your ears and heart and body just melt into awe. Just sort of between awe and complete bafflement of hearing it and how your body wants to move to it."
That trip was in 1999, with four more made from 2001 to 2007. In that time, Toubab Krewe grew into a favorite on the jam touring circuit, its kora-centric grooves not just setting it apart from all the post-Grateful Dead acts that populate that world but also the growing roster of young American bands drawing on African influences – Antibalas, Nomo, Budos Band, et al., with more the horn-heavy Afrobeat; Vampire Weekend and others embracing more the South African township approach.
And that's where the album leads, with the "official" final track, 'Beacon,' seeing the Malian spirit guiding the music with not just kora but the West African-style fiddle, also played by Heller.
"I like the way the direction ended up," he says. "Feels like it moves toward the traditional, with the song 'Konekoba' and with 'Beacon' the fiddle, combination of West African and North Carolina fiddle."
And now the direction will be back to Africa, as they plan a break from relentless touring in January.
"It's just been a long time, so I definitely have a homesick kind of feeling for our friends and family over there," he says. "And definitely looking forward to listening to music and playing music while there, continuing to study music. That's part of any given day, just so much inspiration just sitting outside making tea and listening to music. The pace of things, it's such a nice change from this frenetic energy we have sometimes. The days feel longer there – in the best way."
The band will mostly hang out in Bamako while there, though Heller is hoping to get to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, where he's stayed before, depending largely on how things go with an upcoming election.
"Hoping it goes peacefully," he says. "Would be nice to be able to drive there, from north to south. I don't know, just have to wait and see."
While there, there are hopes for not just some jam sessions but some recordings with a range of musicians, including star Toumani Diabaté – with whom the Krewe jammed at Bonnaroo – and various members of Oumou Sangaré's band, notably Zoumana Tereta, who plays the one-stringed soku fiddle.
"It's kind of an insane number of possibilities of what might happen. The whole process has been so fun and amazing and serendipitous."
Most important, though, will be the work to help complete Soumano's school, for which the band has raised some funds in various ways, including the annual Manifestivus weekend in rural Vermont, subject of an Around the World column last year.
"Best is getting a chance to spend time with Lamine and his wife, Miriam, and their two children," Heller says. "They just had a daughter. Excited to meet her! Lamine's been doing great. Can't wait to hear all the music he's been doing since we last saw him. We talk on the phone a lot and it seems every time I call he's in the studio producing artists or doing session work and stuff.
"And the project to build the school is under way, not far from where he lives in Bamako. He's acquired the land. Ground's already there. Foundation's already laid, I think. It's a very attainable goal to make this happen. He's such an amazing teacher. Really has got a very focused energy as a mentor and he works with kids and adults there. I know I'm one of several adult students from abroad, as well. He teaches at the American school there now and is leading a sort of Manding ensemble for kids. Once the school is up and running, we think it's going to be great. And, hopefully, it will have a recording studio since he's such a creature of the studio. Can't imagine how much he'll do with it being in this domain and not his home. He's really – what's the word for someone who makes lots and lots of art effortlessly?"
Maybe simply "friend"?