VISITING ACT: Toubab Krewe 

Timbuktunes: Shakin' West Saharan booty with Toubab Krewe

Toubab Krewe
w/ Josh Phillips Folk Festival
Sat. June 28
8 p.m.
$17, $15/advance
Music Farm
32 Ann St.
(843) 853-3276

Just because you've traveled to the far reaches of the Saharan desert doesn't mean you don't shop at Wal-Mart. When City Paper called up Justin Perkins, Toubab Krewe's African-harp picking maestro, he was buying a new pair of socks somewhere in south Alabama.

So we gave him a minute to get on the bus and called him back. Repeatedly. It's a side effect of life on the road — unlike the dependability of a Wallyworld every fifth interstate exit, phone service is no guarantee. Fortunately, Perkins is a patient guy. And he'd have to be, having mastered African harps made of gourds that most Americans can hardly pronounce. (Ever tried your hand at a kamelengoni?)

"Toubab," the word for "foreigner" in several languages of Saharan West Africa, is a logical name for the band. In 2000, four of the band's five members traveled to Guinea and the Ivory Coast, where they were introduced to the Manding style of music, characterized by its staccato melodies and deep rhythms. Perkins and guitarist Drew Heller each met mentors who worked with them over several repeat visits to Mali to perfect their styles.

"The first time I went to Africa, I thought, 'What are these people going to think about me?'" Perkins says. "They're taken aback a little by it at first, but they're extremely flattered that you're taking your time and spending your money to come and learn about their culture. And if you're serious about it, they'll teach you whatever you want to know."

In the circles of African and world music, the Asheville, N.C.-based band (rounded out by bassist David Pranksy, percussionist Luke Quaranta, and drummer Teal Brown) has already made it. Last year, they performed at the Festival of the Desert in Timbuktu, perhaps the most remote music festival in the world. This summer, amidst a U.S. tour that includes four dates in Alask, they'll fly to Portugal for the Festival Músicas do Mundo.

"It's a huge world music fest with lots of artists we look up to and admire," says Perkins. One of those is Umar bin Hassan, a founding member of spoken word group The Last Poets. "Umar came out to see us in Columbus, Ohio, and was really tripping on this bunch of young white kids playing African music."

Hassan has since joined the normally instrumental Krewe on stage several times, including on their recent sold out New Year's Eve performances in Asheville. Even though Toubab Krewe plays orchestrated, organized music, their American fanbase draws heavily from the jam band crowd. As one friend looked over and put it at last year's Pour House performance, "You can't not dance to this."

"We definitely don't consider ourselves a jam band, but it's flattering that the scene takes to us like they do," says Perkins. "We've got a healthy dose of form and structure, but we do believe that improvisation is key."

For their first performance headlining the Music Farm, Toubab Krewe is bringing along Rayna Gellert, the talented violinist of Uncle Earl who wowed crowds when she played with them at last year's MerleFest. The band is also putting the finishing touches on their sophomore album, due for release this fall, and is likely to play a few songs not heard before in Charleston. If your girlfriend asks you, the bigger of the gourd instruments (the 21-string one) that Perkins handles is called a kora. It's much easier to pronounce than to play.


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