On a good live recording, such as Live at the Orange Peel, listeners get just enough whooping and hooting to remind an audience was there and just enough crowd interaction to remind the band was aware of it. The sound should be clear without seeming over-polished. Most importantly, from the point of view of someone listening at home, he or she should hear the way a live crowd reshapes the music being performed.
Live, Toubab Krewe brings a recklessness to its playing—one found rarely in studio recordings—as the effect of this excitement transfers itself from the pit to the stage. Pauses go on a touch longer than in the studio as the band lets the audience hang in anticipation of the next note. The crescendo in “Moose” thrashes to a halt with a series of staggered flourishes, suggesting the musicians are aware of the screaming and shouting to ensue. It seems as if they’re saying: “Wait for it … wait for it … not done yet … all right, now you can cheer”.
We can hear the gourd and strings of the band’s kora being slapped around, a physical slang that studio recordings of the instrument almost inevitably leave out. Anyone who has only heard the kora at its most polite, formal and classical tidied cleanly onto an album will get a surprise when they first hear one played live, especially if it takes place in a setting like the one on Live at the Orange Peel. A big instrument with a sizeable presence— thanks to its 21 strings and a neck that stands up stiffly like a suspicious giraffe—the kora ultimately proves more formidable than a guitar. To play it, the performer braces himself or herself against the long-necked instrument, then tugs on the strings as if he or she means to shoot arrows out of them. (Someone once referred to Seckou Keita of the Seckou Keita Quintet as “the Hendrix of the kora”, a curious assessment, to be sure, but at least after seeing one in the flesh, one can understand how a person might come to the conclusion a kora can be treated as roughly as a guitar.)
At the same time, there’s a refinement in it, which comes from the intricacy of its traditional repertoire and its pitch. Take it away, and Toubab Krewe would sound like a standard North American rock band, equipped simply with guitar, bass, drums and other percussion. The West African touch Justin Perkins brings in with his kora and kamel ngoni gives the American rock sound something to work with. The direct growl and bark of rock listens to the lighter, spiraling, Art Nouveau notes of West Africa and then mimics them, using them as a springboard.
Meanwhile, the West African music takes on a snatchy gimme-gimme rock sound. Some African musicians have been working on this kind of blended stadium-sized-trad-pop-as-African-Western music for a while, so it’s interesting to hear the same thing coming from the other direction, from America rather than Africa. The first listen reminds of a live Salif Keita performance: the huge size of it, the lights, the thrilled crowd, the robed figure on the stage striding and pointing. If you took away Keita and the chorus of women to the side and made it an instrumental series of disciplined jams, you might have something like Live at the Orange Peel.