Q&A: Travis Frugé, Importer of Djembes From Artists in West Africa

Travis Frugé, who has worked and traveled extensively in Africa, has initiated a Kickstarter campaign for Knoxville-based Noble Traders, a business that will be importing djembes (drums) from artists in West Africa.

How would you change the way most Knoxvillians probably think of the impoverished people in Africa?

I hate the way charity posters and commercials depict so many Africans as poor, sad, and unproductive. Africans hate those posters too. Like so many of us they just want a good job to provide for their families, they love life, and they are so skilled in ways that we don't understand. I hope this business can help provide more opportunities for people to provide for their families and help share with Americans some of the incredible skills these people have.

What was your "Aha!" moment when you thought, "Yep, drums."

I knew I wanted to import from Africa and I was brainstorming what I should import first. I was thinking coffee, wooden carvings, when my friend said, "You should import djembes" and I didn't have to think about it another second. Drums embody African culture so well: the rhythm, the movement. The culture is so alive, and I think that's why such amazing drums come from there.

Why Senegal instead of some other part of Africa you'd been to?

I had been all over East Africa and had even brought home a few drums, but the best djembes in the world come from West Africa. They have been carving djembes in this region since the 13th century.

What educational background led to you first going to the Horn of Africa and South Sudan?

I studied international studies at Texas A&M and got an MS in international development at Tulane. I had even done a portion of a Ph.D. program but I got too antsy to sit still any longer. In Mozambique I ran orphanages, medical outreaches, and feeding programs, which transitioned me well into working with Doctors Without Borders. I managed logistics, finance, and administration for three clinics on the Somali border during the refugee influx and later in a remote area of South Sudan. I have a willingness to work in the places many people are afraid to work. That has gotten me in some intense situations but I have always come out okay.

How'd you end up in Knoxville?

In 2006 I went to Mozambique for what I thought was going to be a short while where I met an awesome group of Knoxvillians. I visited Knoxville and loved it. A few weeks later I threw everything in my car and drove 18 hours in one day to get here. Even though I am gone for extended periods of time, I always come back. I know some of the greatest people in the world here.

How many people's efforts make up the current Noble Traders?

Countless people have helped me on this. It would only be half as good without my friends and family—in fact, I just could not have done it. My twin brother Bryan, and my friend Nathan Fray took time off of work to travel to Senegal with me. Other friends such as Austin Church (founder of Bright Newt), Brock Human (an amazing songwriter and producer), David Platillero (from the band Maplehurst), Tyler Anthony (from the band Cereus Bright), and Bryan Terrill (my roommate) have helped in ways varying from offering advice to helping me record the music for the video to encouraging me when I felt like giving up. And I really would have if it weren't for them. As far as running Noble Traders I am managing everything myself until it builds enough momentum to hire on some help. I am making plans to start new lines from products from new countries. I am working to connect the dots between a leather tannery in Uganda and designers in the U.S. to import leather goods such as shoes, bags, and even books. If you are a designer, and this sentence intrigues you—e-mail me!

Do you have a day job?

Right now I am restoring houses to pay the bills while I get this project off the ground.

How'd you meet the artists who will participate?

We explored. We drove all over Dakar so many times looking through markets, meeting djembe players, and making connections until we found the best djembe makers in town. They were so happy to meet us because business has been slow. They were surprised by all our camera equipment. They thought we wanted to film djembe carving so we could come back to America and carve djembes ourselves!

How will this enterprise "use business to bless, not exploit"?

One example of how we are doing this is in intentionally paying our partners very well for our products. We don't prioritize profit maximization. We do not try to haggle down in the artist's prices, and one artist we are even paying more than his asking price! We believe in these guys, in the work they do, and I really think when people hear these drums they will understand why.

How's your drumming?

It is getting better! I took lessons while I was in Senegal and I have been practicing. My dad and twin are drummers. I have always wanted to learn djembe and have always wanted American music to have more percussion. Maybe this company will help make that happen.

Learn more about Frugé at his Noble Traders campaign page on kickstarter.com.