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Puzzle Pieces 

Toubab Krewe melds West Africa and North Carolina

click to enlarge Toubab Krewe. Submitted photo.
  • Toubab Krewe. Submitted photo.

There's a certain fusion of ancient and modern in the music of Toubab Krewe that grabbed me instantly. At first listen you might think it's an African band, perhaps brothers to the electric Saharan desert blues of Tinariwen — and they are — but Toubab Krewe is from Asheville, N.C., and their musical merger comes from the opposite direction.

At the center of the band are two old friends, guitarist Drew Heller and Justin Perkins, who started out as a drummer but now plays traditional African instruments like the kora and the ngoni.

"Justin and I grew up together in Asheville," said Drew, calling from Telluride where the band was about to play. "We've been playing music together since we were little kids." From 5th grade to middle school they played "Zeppelin, Hendrix and the surf-rock sort of thing," then in high school, "the interest in the West African side of things began, in full earnest." Hanging out with a local drum builder, they played traditional African rhythms at drum gatherings. In college they formed Common Ground, a drum and dance troupe, and eventually spent whole summers in Guinea and Ivory Coast.

"Another important piece in the puzzle," says Drew, "we were also listening to a lot of traditional old time music: fiddle tunes and banjo tunes. My parents were into that and had sessions and old time music potlucks ... by middle school I'd taken up the fiddle and claw hammer banjo. I think that energy and aesthetic translates into what we do. When we made it to West Africa for the first time in 1999, and started getting into the traditional music there, there was this solid connection. We didn't speak the language at all at that point, but we connected through music."

Putting it all together, they recorded an eponymous album, mostly using traditional African songs as a launch pad, but adding an electric-American vibe. As Drew explained, "A lot of the tunes — 'Djarabi,' for example — come from a family of tunes. There are a lot of songs with a similar accompaniment. A different chorus might be sung depending on who the artist is."

In a way it's not much different from a blues tune, where the lyrics change, or a trad fiddle tune, where you have a basic chord structure and pattern. "There are all these variations on the same song. What we're doing is changing it and adding our American influences, the music we grew up with. We keep the titles to point to source material. It's definitely 'Djarabi.'" (For more of our interview check ncjournal.wordpress.com.)

This week Toubab Krewe is heading for the West Coast and will play at Humboldt Brews on Tuesday, April 15. Added bonus: The Arcata gig is one of a short string of shows with fiddler Rayna Gellert from Uncle Earl joining them, reinforcing that particular piece of the puzzle. The world-beat vocal ensemble AkaBella opens the show. (Catch them Saturday at Muddy's Hot Cup along with a solo set by with Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir director Jaese Lecuyer.)

The wild and crazy Eric McFadden Trio is back, this time plus one, with Eric McF ripping up guitars, James Whiton on amplified double bass, Jeff Cohen on drums, plus special guest Bernie Worrell from Funkadelic, Talking Heads, etc. on keyboards. That's Thursday at the Red Fox. Friday the Fox has Zepperella, the all-woman tribute to Led Zeppelin.

It's hard to place Romanteek, the Olympian band playing Friday at the Accident Gallery. The driving sound is kinda retro, but not a particular period. Let's just call it dance music. The Romanteek heart of gold is singer Ruby Valentine — the band was once just her, who should have been the next-big-thing a long time ago. The Monster Women and Maddy Shernock, aka The Beat Nun open.

Friday is also Arts! Arcata, bringing out the usual suspects: ShinBone, Weather Machine, Clean Livin', Likely Story, Fred and Wilma, etc. (see Music and More for locations), plus something different: Allison Scull (guitar) and Victor Martin (sax) playing jazzy folk at the Recycling Center, of all places.

Friday the Jambalaya goes eclectic: Montana Slim is a polished neo-bluegrass quintet from S.F. whose first CD was produced by former Mother Hip Tim Bluhm. Then you have Humboldt's own UKEsperience, the ukulele jammers who played with M. Slim last time they were in town. Finally you have the Attilla & Dave Project, also from S.F., with Attila Medveczky and Dave Stevenson, who have been exploring progressive alt. something (what is hard to say) for a couple of decades.

A band called The BKD Shiftemerges from the garage to play Friday at Fieldbrook Market. The lineup: Damon Brooks (from Donna Landry's band) on guitar, and the Fickle Hill Billies rhythm section: Chuck Kircher drums and Rick DeVol bass. "It's kind of bluesy," says Chuck K. "We play a little Motown, Grateful Dead-ish guitar, a bit of Neville Bros. We do all sorts of stuff: some Dwight Yoakam tunes, some by Wilson Pickett, of course some from Jerry, and songs by Rick and Damon. It's groovy."

The Nucleus plays a "Save Our Van" show Friday at Humboldt Brews. Drummer Pete C. explains, "We got in a big wreck in Tahoe on the Sub/Sab tour, slid on some black ice at three in the morning and did about $5,000 worth of damage. No one was hurt, and the equipment trailer is all good, but the front end is real bad, and not having the van sucks. We're going back to Tahoe next week on a tour with Moo-Got-2 and we hope to get the van then." Pete also notes that the band is jamming some new tunes, so you might want to see them beyond the van sympathy angle.

And speaking of tour-mates Moo-Got-2, they're part of the massive Digital Signature show Saturday at Portuguese Hall. Headliners Jacob Fred Jazz Odysseyare on the never-ending odyssey, lately moving from outside jazz jams, to ambient digi-electro-jams. They're on the road with a trés cool just-released EP, Lil Tae Rides Again, and some digital-type friends: down-tempo psychbient artistBluetech, aka evan (who says, "i make sounds; rivers of music ancient and delicate flow through me") and Aaron Holstein aka VibeSquaD, a bass-blip-glitch guy from ColoRadO. Also on the bill, Deep Groover DJ Touch and Justin B. Note: The invite says "dress to impress," whatever that might mean to you.

An e-mail came from a friend of a friend asking who's at the Jambalaya Saturday, April 12. An earlier note from booker Clay said only, "dude from Jurassic 5," and that's exactly how the show is listed elsewhere. The "dude" is Akil the MCfrom J-5, who is touring with Raashan Ahmad of Crown City Rockers DJ T Minus1. Chris D. fromR. Duck Hunters filled me in on the rest of the lineup: Coolzey James Two, The Chicharones(Sleep Josh Martinez).

Two of Portland's top alt. Americana acts, Drunken Prayerand Power of County, are headed down the West Coast together, stopping in Arcata Saturday for a show at The Alibi. While Power of County is in the rough-edged, tongue-in-cheek outlaw country mold, Drunken Prayer is a touch more polished; frontman Morgan Geerclearly draws inspiration from The Band, which is not a bad thing at all.

A note from Celtic music player/fan George Ziminsky alerted me to a show Saturday at Westhaven Center for the Arts with yet another Portland band, the Hanz Araki Trio. I'm tuned into the stream on Hanz' MySpace as I type and it's a trip. First there's a spacey flute thing with echoes and electronics, kind of Oriental, then a neo-Celtic singer/songwriter number. As George explains, "Hanz grew up in Seattle, moved to Japan (where his father, a shakuhachi master comes from) to pursue shakuhachi [a traditional wooden flute] for a few years, then moved back to Seattle where he got into Celtic music (his mom's heritage in Gaelic)." You might have heard Hanz when he came through with the Casey Neill Trio and/or The Norway Rats. The H.A. Trio also includes Portland guitarist Cary Novotnyand Joey Abartafrom SoCal, who, says George, is "one of the best bodhran players on the West Coast." Reservations are advised since the Center ain't all that big (677-9493).

Elsewhere Saturday you have Ashes, a new metal power trio, playing an all-ages gig at Big Pete's with Napoleon Complex. Meanwhile at Humboldt Brews The Generatorz rock hard. And much earlier in the day (10 a.m.-1 p.m.) Huckleberry Flintplays fine old timey and gospel tunes for the first Farmers' Market of the season on the Arcata Plaza.

Monday at the Jambalaya it's a Panache fierce-rock extravaganza with punk duo Shell and Jen Shag aka Shellshag, playing tunes from their latest release, destroy me i'm yours, a raw slice of in-your-face madness. Expect the same sort of thing from tourmates The King Brothers, an intense Japanese combo who allegedly "approximate the sound of The Germs backing Howlin' Wolf with his hand caught in a garbage disposal." TheZac Institutefrom U-freak-uh open the show.

Have you always wanted to play at the Jam? Got a band? Sign up for the KRFH Battle of the Bands by Friday, April 11, and you could be part of the competition on Thursday, April 17. Winners get cash money and a slot at HSU's SLAM Fest April 27. Check www.krfh.net for entry forms.

Coming Wednesday, April 16, to the Eureka Theater, the annual visit by Nederland, Colorado's Yonder Mountain String Band, a jammy bluegrass band that is about to release Mountain Tracks 5,double-disc live thing. I'd advise getting tickets now since this band's fan base is still growing by leaps and bounds.

On the reggae front you have Jamaican veteran Don Carlosfrom Black Uhuru playing at Mazzotti's. He's also on the bill for Reggae Rising, and there's that Rising/River trial this week, but we'll get into that some other time. For now, think peace.

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Bob Doran

Bob Doran

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