Bokanté Announces Newest Album “History”
Due Out June 30th on Real World Records!
Let’s rewrite the story. Tell other perspectives. Let’s celebrate the overlooked, the outcast, those who knew differently. And when we can, because we should, let’s dance.
“We listen to the ones who fed it / The ones who won and won’t forget it / Let it go,” sings Malika Tirolien on the title track of History, the frankly superb third album by globally-engaged supergroup Bokanté.
History. Nine tracks that tell — with lyrics sung mainly in Tirolien’s Guadeloupean Creole — ofoutsiders and seers, memories and joy; of black history, global unity and the futility of war. Of taking time to rest, feel, love. Of the redemptive power of music — as a conduit, a change maker, a muse.
“Used positively, in moments of vulnerability music can make us more receptive to messages,” says Michael League, the multi-instrumentalist, composer and (Snarky Puppy) bandleader who formed Bokanté (which means ‘exchange’) in 2016.
“In that sense Bokanté tries to open the listener up to the unique perspectives shared among the group’s members. We are multi-lingual, multicultural and multi-generational but there’s a connection we feel as musicians and people.” A smile. “It’s a really beautiful thing.”
After two acclaimed albums — 2017’s Strange Circles and What Heat, the band’s Grammy-nominated 2018 acoustic collaboration with the Metropole Orkest — and a whole lot of touring, the vibe is stronger than ever.
The blues help. From the get-go, Bokanté have plugged into the blues, tracing the genre’s roots in West Africa and the Arab world through the diaspora into the retro-modern present.
History finds them exploring further, dressing folkloric instruments including the Arabic oud, West African ngoni and North African guembri, the bass lute favoured by Morocco’s Gnawa maalems, in western clothes. Interweaving layers of percussion with all the nuanced skill expected of four percussion maestros: André Ferrari of Swedish folk renegades Väsen. Ex-Berklee music professor Jamey Haddad (Sting, Paul Simon). Nagasaki-raised, New York-based Keita Ogawa (Cecile McLorin Salvant). Ghanaian-New Orleanian drum king Weedie Braimah (Christian Scott), a special guest on What Heat, a vital band member now.
“History is very bass and percussion heavy,” says League. “Texturally, it is our freshest, most interesting project yet. We changed the process, which always changes the product.”
Band members including Snarky Puppy guitarists Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti and South Florida raised-lap steel player Roosevelt Collier had previously recorded remotely, absorbing and embellishing the music sent to them in files by co-writers Tirolien and League, who was often elsewhere with other projects. While History’s painterly lyrics were primarily written by the Guadalupe-born Tirolien during lockdown in Montreal, the re-opening of the world saw the entire ensemble — nine musicians from five countries and four continents — converge on League’s home in a tiny village outside Barcelona, Spain.
There, they worked on ideas as a unit. The ideas flew. The colours flashed. The sound got bigger.
“It was an incredible experience,” says Tirolien, “We hadn’t seen each other physically for two years so we got to chill, re-bond, have fun. Musically, we followed exciting new directions.”
League nods. “Everyone had been pursuing different musical interests during their time away and they brought these to table,” he says. “So I play a lot of guembri. There are percussion instruments from my collection that we’ve never used before. The guitars have a new role, providing contrast rather than riffs.”
The riffs, when they come (and do they ever), are peeled off guembri and electric oud, instruments whose lack of frets enable a more expressive palate, greater freedom of expression.
Dig the Prince-esque guembri riff on the album’s title track, the only song sung in English. “This is a really funky tune intended to show the power of the band,” says League, who wrote the music and the lyrics.
“I fell in love with the guembri when I fell in love with Gnawa music in Morocco. I’ve always been a frustrated drummer and the guembri is an instrument that feels like you’re playing bass, drums and melody at the same time. On this song (‘History’), the combination of guembri, bass, lap steel and electric guitar playing in unison is a nice foundation for Malika to soar over.”
And soar Tirolien does, her honeyed voice channeling a zeitgeist recently focused on issues including identity, decolonisation and alternative histories/herstories/theirstories.
“We know there was a lot more going on in the last 500 years than what we’ve read or were taught,” League says. “Many things came to light with movements like #MeToo and Black Lives
Matter. There’s an increasing desire to understand a more comprehensive history, to acknowledge marginalised figures.”
Opener ‘Bliss’ is a grunge-like riposte to the willfully ignorant, a track with a stoner-riff written on oud then guembri and buoyed by spirited percussion, textured guitars and a prominent melodic bassline.
“It’s a song about not wanting to think about the world,” says Tirolien, whose lyrical and vocal gifts convey a range of emotion, invariably prompting the listener to discover what, exactly, she is singing about.
Which, on the bluesy, sometimes psychedelic ‘Pa Domi’ — a Morocco-meets-Mali desert trip with the lap steel up front — is life’s relentless grind. Recalling rhythms from West Africa as well as those of Guadeloupe’s drum-centric Gwo ka, ‘Adjoni’ is a story of a life on the spectrum and of brilliance in the margins; the lyrics of ‘Iliminé’ speak to the protective properties of love, offer a mantra to keep us joyful regardless.
‘Ah, now is the time to come together,’ sings Tirolien in Creole. ‘Ah, not tomorrow, we’re doing it today.’
League wrote the music for ‘Iliminé’ in New York a few years ago, saving it onto his phone in case an up-tempo tune was ever needed: “In Spain it was a fun excuse to get all four percussionists playing in a very featured way,” he says. “There’s space for Malika to showcase how rhythmic she is as a vocalist” — Guadeloupean Creole has a percussive flow — “and I got to play my Sixties Hofner bass as well as the ngoni.”
Bokante’s founder has long been a student of instruments from elsewhere. League has learned Turkish percussion in Istanbul and traditional guembri techniques from Gnawa mentors. He has immersed himself in the oeuvres of such feted Malian musicians as Ali Farke Touré and ngoni-wizard Bassekou Kouyaté.
Being a jazz musician, League also likes to go his own way. “I always enjoy learning and respecting the history and role of each folkloric instrument I’ve studied,” he says. “But I never lose that outsider mentality of pushing an instrument beyond what it is traditionally meant to do.”
A song about the comfort found in nostalgia, ‘Flè A Mémwa’ was born out of an improvisation magicked by League and Tirolien during a workshop they hosted at Virginia’s Jefferson Center. Together in Spain, Bokante’s four percussionists then recorded their contributions live, with Haddad’s passages of vocal percussion breaking up the instrumentation, heightening the intimacy.
Featuring melodic exchanges between Tirolien’s vocals and Collier’s shimmering lap steel, ‘Ta Voix’ is a paean to the power and beauty of song and music; the dreamy ‘Mikrob’, History’s most mellow track, is a perspective re-set, and an exercise in meta-kindness.
Driven by a groove written on guembri and wielded, with solos, on darbouka hand drums, ‘Tandé’ addresses black history. “It’s about the struggles black people have experienced for centuries,” says Tirolien. “Many black figureheads tried to tell the world what was happening. They’re only just being heard.”
History, then. An album that looks back in order to go forward. Words by Jane Cornwell.
History is due out June 30th with Real World Records!