(Upstream Records, CD)
Toubab Krewe 's take on African music is about as good as it gets without buying a plane ticket. Although most of the group's members hail from Asheville, North Carolina, bassist David Pranski lives in Cabot, and they sometimes rehearse in the Green Mountains. The quintet recently wowed audiences at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, and they'll play Albany, Vermont's Northeast Kingdom Music Festival in August. Fans of top-notch world music will want to pick up a copy of Toubab Krewe's self-titled debut well before then.
Nearly everything on this disc works. Unlike watered-down hybrids of jam-rock and worldbeat, Toubab are focused and authentic. That's not to say they don't incorporate Western influences. It's just that when they do, the result is refreshingly unpretentious. Listening to their record, I began to notice the connection between African musical structures and the stuff many of us grew up with -- in a way, Toubab Krewe are where Ali Farka Toure and Led Zeppelin meet.
Nearly all the tracks on the disc are reworkings of traditional African songs. Several band members have made the pilgrimage to study and perform with the continent's master musicians. They must've been great students, because these tunes positively smoke.
The musicianship, confidence and soul on display here make it tough for me to praise one song over another, but I can provide a few highlights.
Opener "Devil Woman" is based around a simple rhythmic foundation, with African instruments sharing space with electric guitars, bass and drums. There isn't a single note wasted, as the song's interweaving melodies and hypnotic beats come together in a potent musical stew.
"Mali Sadjo" kicks off with a restrained drum pattern. Soon a playfully slinky musical figure is introduced. Justin Perkins and Drew Heller take turns on various exotic instruments, creating tension while retaining the groove. Drummer Teal Brown keeps the beat on simmer as bassist Pranski dances around it. "Asheville to Abidjan" gives percussionist Luke Quaranta a chance to shine with a compelling solo that would certainly make his teachers proud. "Djarabi" is a somewhat sinister minor-key number that reminds me of gathering storm clouds on a hot summer's evening.
Toubab Krewe are a great example of what can happen when musicians don't take the easy way out. The band's music is danceable and celebratory, but it's also full of integrity and discipline. What a wonderful combination.