Bokanté: Blues & Roots

Bokanté delivers musical and social unity during these divisive times

Photo of Bokanté

Things didn’t exactly go smoothly for Bokanté during its Philadelphia debut, part of the Funk of Ages event at the Fillmore in June, when technical difficulties cut the group’s set nearly in half. Many a newborn band—this was only the ninth show in its short history—would have walked away dejected. Then again, Bokanté is a new project founded by Snarky Puppy leader and bassist Michael League, who has logged more than a few miles and mishaps on the road with that tirelessly touring act. The eight-piece shrugged off the setback and roared through an abbreviated set, barely pausing between one electrified, desert-blues-fueled song and the next.

League met Guadeloupe-born singer Malika Tirolien in 2012, when the band she was then fronting, Groundfood, opened for Snarky Puppy in Montreal. He invited her to sing on the band’s Grammy-winning 2013 album Family Dinner—Volume 1, and she was the first name that came to mind when he decided to form a new project based on the blues diaspora, which brought together musicians from diverse cultures to create its groove-heavy world-music fusion. League and Tirolien discussed the band’s origins and intentions backstage after their set, before League had to retake the stage with Snarky Puppy. SHAUN BRADY

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JazzTimes: Where did the inspiration for Bokanté come from?

ML: Whenever I come up with song ideas I record them on my phone, and I started noticing that a lot of the ideas I had sounded similar but didn’t really fit into the Snarky Puppy paradigm. I’d been really into blues-based West African music since I was a kid. I’d just worked with Salif Keita and gotten really into Tinariwen and Bassekou Kouyate and Toumani Diabate and all these great Malian artists that have their own version of the blues. So I started listening to all of the material that was piling up on my phone and thought, “I guess I just need to start a new band.” I think of it as a cross between West African music, Delta blues and the different paths that the blues have taken, like Zeppelin and basically all rock and roll.

Why did you ask Malika to join you in the project?

ML: The music is already a bastardization of different paths that the blues has gone down, and Malika, being from Guadeloupe, is speaking Creole, a language that was created out of the slave trade and traveled the same path that African music took. It just made sense.

Malika, what did you hear in Michael’s music that inspired
your lyrics?

MT: He emailed me the music and attached some lyrical concepts that he wanted to be explored, like racism, immigration, stuff like that that is really important right now. I’m always for having a message in the music, so I agreed 100-percent. I brought some more comic and more joyful ideas, about community or speaking to the next generation.

With those ideas in mind, how much did the current social and political climate in the U.S. and around the world contribute to the founding of this band?

ML: One-hundred-percent. The concept to start this band [came] a solid year before Trump’s election, so it was really Brexit and Turkey and Venezuela and seeing populism rearing its ugly head again. I also spent the last two years working very intensely with David Crosby, who’s very outspoken and believes strongly in the idea that artists must use their voices to influence people and improve life. It’s our job to help make Earth better. So I wouldn’t say the band is political, but it’s very social; it deals with social issues. But you can’t discount politics. [Bokanté] doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so everything we do is political.

How do you communicate such pointed messages to your live audience, the majority of which doesn’t speak Creole?

MT: I grew up in Guadeloupe and didn’t know how to speak English, and I was always a fan of American music. I was a big fan of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill and even hip-hop like Busta Rhymes and, way later, Kendrick Lamar. At the time I didn’t understand anything but it would touch me anyway. It’s the flow, the music, the intensity, the intention behind it. Sometimes I would even be disappointed later, when I would finally understand what they were saying. I’m hoping people get more of the vibe and the feeling and they can make their own stories.

Bokanté means “exchange” in Creole. What does that signify  to you?

MT: It’s exactly what we’re trying to say [with] the lyrics and the formation of the band—the fact that so many people are coming together from other places, embracing each other’s differences, growing from it and having a musical conversation together. That fits perfectly with the word “exchange.”

Being a musician is inherently a nomadic life, and Malika, you’ve lived in Guadeloupe and Montreal beyond that, so do you feel that gives you a unique perspective on these issues?

MT: Totally. If everyone could travel, there would be so many less problems in this world.

Michael, you’ve insisted that you don’t see this as a “side project,” but how is Bokanté feeding back into your work with Snarky Puppy?

ML: I think any experience you have influences everything else. But Snarky Puppy is 14 years old and I’ve known those guys longer than that, so we’re really like old homies. We give each other shit all the time. When you know people really well, sometimes you get so intimately familiar that you overlook certain things or take them for granted. With Bokanté, because everything’s so new and fresh, my antennae are up. I’m going to try to bring that back to Snarky Puppy and see what the guys might have to offer that I’ve been overlooking.

Read Ashley Kahn’s Before & After listening session with Snarky Puppy’s Michael League.

Listen to and download Strange Circles by Bokante on iTunes.