It’s been far too long since the last Toubab Krewe album, TK2, came out in 2010, but the Asheville-based pioneers of Malian-American fusion music more than make up for lost time with Stylo, eight tracks’ worth of richly textured jams that draw on West African and American styles alike.
The intercontinental interplay between Malian strings (kora, ngoni, soku) and American ones (electric bass and guitar) is more pronounced and refined on Stylo than it ever has been before. Opening track “That Damn Squash” demonstrates this perfectly as musicians toss lead parts back and forth between instruments. The result is a cohesive set of grooves that defy narrow classification, evoking Appalachian and Atlas Mountains alike. Electric guitar with a rugged outlaw twang balance out a cosmopolitan kora strut as non-stop drumming drives the group over rocky terrain.
“Night Shade” enters next, steady beats building up momentum until, two and a quarter minutes in, the guitar line bursts into the kind of explosive solo that most jam bands can only dream of. The title track follows and it’s a warm and gentle breeze of retro instrumental atmosphere that brings to mind the golden age of Lollywood, another of Toubab Krewe’s inspirations for the album.
It’s Mali all the way on “Saba Miniya”, though; the guitar work here recalls the Saharan desert blues that have become so synonymous with today’s internationally known Malian rock scene as, side-by-side, more traditional Malian strings weave together another intricate pattern. It’s nothing less than polyphonic bliss and segues well into single “Salut”, a traditional Wassoulou tune divided into two parts: a hypnotic mid-tempo opening and a faster, more percussive close.
By far the album’s most bombastic track, “Lafia” starts out with what sounds like every instrument playing at once. Such well-arranged density is proof positive that this is a technical expert group that is far more than the sum of its parts, each member in perfect harmony no matter how easy it would be for the piece to collapse into chaos.
In sharp contrast, “Miriama” sees the band at its acoustic best. Sweet and relaxed, the billowing track features a male-female vocal duet amid delicately ornamented ostinati.
Toubab Krewe makes one more shift with the final cut “Southern Tracks”, a muddy jumble of sheer volume, totally incoherent until the last couple of minutes when the dust clears just enough to hear some individual lines amid the raucous mess. This is the only moment where the album really falls flat; while this might be a song suitable for a whole album of noise, it’s a real head-scratcher coming at the end of such an otherwise melodically inclined album, and does little to finish up Stylo on a satisfying note.
While the last track fails to translate well to a recording, though, there is the promise of the prospect of hearing it live. Toubab Krewe is, above all, a band meant to be experienced in person. Stylo comes out in the midst of a tour that will take Toubab Krewe from playing alongside the Pimps of Joytime in Colorado to the East Coast – including a stop on March 11th at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn – and then over to Michigan for the Electric Forest Festival in June. As well as Stylo displays Toubab Krewe’s considerable range, skill, and ability to cross genre boundaries, the band is truly meant for travel. Stylo is just the tip of the iceberg for a band with so much to show.