Dynamic transcontinental collective Bokanté enliven the new Twilight series on Santa Monica Pier
By Bliss Bowen
Time and home are fascinating, paradoxically mutable concepts with Bokanté, and not just because of the transatlantic collective’s magnetic polyrhythms. There’s the history engrained in their blues foundation, and then there are the more prosaic temporal demands placed by competing schedules.
Bassist and composer Michael League is also bandleader for the Grammy Award-winning jazz-funk group Snarky Puppy, with whom frontwoman Malika Tirolien has recorded. Bringing eight or nine active musicians together always bears some resemblance to the proverbial herding of cats — a fact substantially magnified when said musicians come from different continents and cultures.
Tirolien, who grew up in Guadeloupe (she sings in Caribbean Creole and French), is in Canada, while other members reside in cities across North America and Europe. When Bokanté performs Wednesday night on Santa Monica Pier, League and Tirolien will be accompanied by a seven-piece band, including four players — pedal steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier, guitarist Bob Lanzetti, and percussionists Weedie Braimah and André Ferrari — who were featured on Bokanté’s forthcoming album “What Heat,” due Oct. 5 from RealWorld.
It’s a young band —only two years old, with two albums to their credit already. (“Strange Circles” came out last year.) League and Tirolien’s creative connection precedes Bokanté’s inception; Tirolien’s belted out the R&B lament “I’m Not the One” on Snarky Puppy’s 2013 album “Family Dinner Vol. 1,” after sitting in with them during a concert series a year or two before that. With all the scheduling conflicts posed by members involved in myriad projects, they’ve made the most of time spent together.
In a broad sense, the music remains blues-based, with a defining percussive thrust and Tirolien’s expressively limber vocals centering each song’s emotional call. It isn’t “pure” blues, as Americans might consider it, but rather blues that considers how blues has evolved throughout the African diaspora.
“As an American, the blues is basically the lens through which I see music,” League says during an interview conducted via email so he could rest his vocal cords between rehearsals in Europe. “This band deals with that vision a bit more directly. I think that there is endless room for exploration within the context of the blues, and you see that when looking at artists like Jimi Hendrix, Maalem Hamid El Kasri, or Robert Johnson. It’s so open, and gives you so much.”
That said, “What Heat” is notably different from “Strange Circles.” The latter’s jammy quality reflects artists in the just-met stages of learning each other’s musical shorthand (“We really started from scratch,” League notes). The more polished “What Heat” is a collaboration with Metropole Orkest and arranger Jules Buckley.
“As composers, ‘What Heat’ is a bit more intricate compositionally, a bit more specific,” League observes. “As musicians, we’ve really discovered a lot about what works and what doesn’t in the group — instrument combinations, vocal harmonies, etc. As far as the defining difference, it’s two-fold: one being Jules Buckley and the Metropole Orkest’s role in the album, and the second being the fact that it’s fully acoustic.”
“The way the two albums were written and recorded are different,” Tirolien concurs. “The first one was written over email and recorded with everyone at the same place at the same time. The second one was (mostly) written on a trip in Spain and recorded separately (percussion/guitars first, then orchestra and finally vocals). Stylistically, the albums are different too. The first one is more trance-oriented while the second one is more arranged. And obviously, the biggest difference is that the second album is in collaboration with the Metropole Orkest, so the direction and sound are very different.”
The Netherlands-based Metropole Orkest was already familiar with League, as the Grammy-winning jazz-pop orchestra had previously worked him on Snarky Puppy’s 2016 album “Sylva.” Buckley’s elegantly layered arrangements discernibly enhance the scope and depth of this project, dynamically articulating the varied parts of the whole. But as lyrical statements, Bokanté’s songs are rooted in League and Triolien’s creative connection.
“I’ve always loved Malika’s writing, her observations of society, and her perspective on life,” League says. “And the way in which she communicates these things through song is powerful.”
Tirolien credits their collaboration to League’s “vision” for the band. She brings her own ideas, but when he sends her music she tries to write words “matching the color of the music.”
“Lyrically, I either have a concept in mind or go with what the music inspires,” she explains. “It depends on the song. Per example, on the first album ‘Strange Circles,’ I wanted to write about the cycle of life (‘Zyé ouvè zyé fèmé’) and family (‘An Ni Chans’ and ‘Héritier’). But ‘Roudesann’s’ music inspired me — the fall of a society and the denial of the people at the top of this society concerning its demise — and ‘Vayan’ was inspired by the movie ‘Black Panther’ from the ’90s. It is a song to celebrate the activists and warriors fighting in the dark for global equity and justice.”
“All the Way Home,” the first single from “What Heat,” carries those themes forward into politically relevant realms with voices rallying around an anthemic chorus over ominous frame drums. The video for the song gives visual emphasis to its universal message as well as Bokanté’s musical strengths, in striking scenes depicting dancers spinning and writhing on sets and urban streets across Istanbul, New York and Spain. They were staged by League’s longtime friend, Alvin Ailey choreographer/dancer Hope Boykin, and feature a dance group he befriended last year in Istanbul, Kardes Türküler.
“Our music is groove-based, so having dancers involved in a project has been something I’ve wanted since the beginning of the group,” League explains. “We chose to film in these three countries because each has experienced the consequences of elected officials with authoritarian tendencies, and that runs parallel with the message of the song.”
Bokanté performs as part of Twilight on the Pier, happening from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19. Free. See the full schedule at santamonicapier.org/twilight.