Toubab Krewe Modernizes Traditional African Music

The downfall of modern, commercial guitar festivals is the failure to represent growth, not only in style, but the actual evolution of the instrument as well. While Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival may have boasted some of the greatest guitar players of the era, it lacked in diversity. The upcoming Wall To Wall Guitar Festival at Krannert Center hopes to give the audiences a wider spectrum of the guitar and the instrument’s musical predecessors.

Alongside the typical rock guitarists coming to Krannert are a slew of stylistically diverse artists from around the world, such as Toubab Krewe, a group of musicians whose dedication to traditional, guitar-based African music has created one of the most interesting bands on the rise.

Long before the notion of Toubab Krewe, guitarist Drew Heller and other future band members took an excursion to Guinea and the Ivory Coast with the intent to study music of traditional drums and kora, a Mandean guitar-like instrument with 21 strings. While the idea was to study African percussion and dance styles, Heller couldn’t resist bringing a different instrument along on the trip.

“I brought a guitar just to keep up so I wouldn’t be out of shape when I got back in the States,” reveals Heller.

Within a short while, Heller realized that the guitar culture of Africa casts a broad shadow on American guitar culture. It did not take long for him to realize that his true purpose in Africa was to study guitar.

Heller returned to Africa twice more for intense study and practice of traditional African-guitar based music. In 2004, Heller and bandmate Just Perkins, after having spent months of nearly non-stop practicing, thought up the notion of creating a band when they returned to the States.

“When we got back, we had a few informal gigs and we didn’t even have a name yet, but it grew very quickly,” remembers Heller.

Two years after these beginnings, Toubab Krewe has indeed come along way. A year after their formation, the band was asked to play at Bonnaroo. More recently, they have played at the New York Guitar Festival, Summer Camp Music Festival and various festivals in Africa, a place where Toubab Krewe has had no trouble building a fan base.

“People in general love rock and roll, so it all translates. A fair amount of American music is played in Africa, so we are received fairly well,” says Heller.

Toubab Krewe has no trouble gaining American fans, too. The Wassoulou style employed by the band is actually pentatonic, giving it a very funky, bluesy sound, which makes it enjoyable for listeners not particularly familiar with the style itself.

For now, the band is mostly involved in the Wassoulou and Manding styles of music, and while they may adopt other styles in the future, there is no doubt that they will always draw heavily from their African influence.

“I think our connection to West African musical styles and culture is a lifelong relationship. I know that it’s got a real place in my heart,” explains Heller.

With a second album in production now, it will be interesting to see where music can take Toubab Krewe, or more importantly, where Toubab Krewe can take music.

Catch Toubab Krewe with Sonny Landreth and others next Thursday, September 13 at 6:30 p.m. in the lobby and amphitheatre of Krannert Center. Tickets are $5.

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