Photo by François Bisi

Jane Cornwell speaks to Snarky Puppy’s Michael League and singer Malika Tirolien about their latest supergroup Bokanté, who are set to be making waves this summer.

This article originally appeared in Songlines July #129. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit:

Michael League has never formed another band in the 14 years since he founded Snarky Puppy. For who needs a side project when your Grammy-winning, Texas-bred, New York-based, improvisational instrumental jazz collective is an active collaborator, working with the likes of the Dutch Metropole Orchestra and releasing albums that feature such special guests as Peruvian diva Susana Baca, Americana icon David Crosby and the Malian Caruso, Salif Keita? Serendipity, however, works in mysterious ways – and Bokanté, which means ‘Exchange’ in Creole, feels like it was meant to be.

“I record ideas on my phone all the time,” says the slight, bearded League, sitting backstage at a sunlit WOMADelaide in March. “Melody, groove, rhythm, bassline, whatever; I’ve been doing it for about five years. When I eventually listened back to them I thought, wow, there’s a lot of stuff with the same sound.” A Delta-meets-desert sound that he is reluctant to define: “This band [Bokanté] marries a lot of my interests. I grew up loving American blues and Led Zeppelin and different blues formats, and over the last five years I’ve been getting deep into West African music. Bassekou Kouyaté, Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita, Tinariwen,” he pauses and smiles. “I started thinking that I should put a band together that plays this sort of stuff. A band with a singer, a bunch of guitars and a bunch of percussionists but no [kit] drums, horns or keyboards.” In other words, a band that was nothing like Snarky Puppy.

Bokanté’s outing at WOMADelaide was only their third public gig. Some in the appreciative crowd made comparisons to Talking Heads, King Crimson and Meshell Ndegeocello; to this observer they sounded like no one else. Their performance was tighter and more accomplished than any band with very little rehearsal might dare to imagine, much of which can be explained by the calibre of musicians in the line-up (acclaimed in some quarters as a ‘super group’). There is League, swapping his bass for baritone guitar, along with Snarky guitarists Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti and Miami-based pedal steel virtuoso Roosevelt Collier, seated centre-stage, a slide guitar set across his knees.

On percussion, there is Keita Ogawa – Nagasaki-raised, Riotrained, a veteran of orchestras including the London Symphony, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the group belonging to superstar cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. On more percussion, the multi-awardwinning Jamey Haddad, an ex-Berklee College music professor and longtime rhythm man for Paul Simon and Sting. On the third and final set of percussion, André Ferrari, a mohawked Swede whose innovative flourishes – handfuls of bells, Gnawa qaraqab (metal castanets), frame drums played face down – are a trademark of Swedish folk outfit Väsen, and whose self-penned ‘Shapons Vindaloo’ is the first track that Snarky Puppy ever recorded. “André is one of the most unique percussionists I’ve met,” says League. “Nothing he uses is conventional.” The bass guitarist, just for WOMADelaide, was Paul Bender of cult Australian space-jazzers Hiatus Kaiyote. The bass guitar slot will remain open, with bassists cherry-picked locally; the bassist for the UK tour is yet to be decided.

“One of the things I love about Snarky Puppy is we always have new musical personalities contributing. With Bokanté the bass chair will be that thing.”

Then there is Bokanté’s pièce de résistance: Malika Tirolien, a charismatic Montréal-based Guadeloupian vocalist who sings mainly in Creole, in a honeyed voice that hits the spot and then some. It was the creative exchanges between Tirolien and League that fleshed out the ideas on the latter’s iPhone: “I would send Malika the music and a lyrical concept that was socially conscious, to do with individual and social struggles.” More specifically, about strife and success, racism, apathy and the refugee crisis; hopes for peace and unity. “She would write the lyrics and melody, demo the song and send it back.”

Trained in classical piano and jazz, Tirolien was fronting a hip-hop leaning outfit called Groundfood that supported Snarky Puppy in Québec, and blew League and his band mates away. “Our whole band were like, ‘Who the fuck is that?’” says League of Tirolien, who is here at our table underneath a spreading Moreton Bay fig tree, and laughing good-naturedly. “She was singing beautifully in three languages, then she’d improvise, then she’d rap in Creole.”

The French-based Creole language has a percussive flow, they say, that lends Bokanté another dimension. “It is beautiful but it can be really rough sounding too,” says Tirolien with a grin. “If you want to insult someone, it’s fantastic.”

Her dialect is particular to Guadeloupe, and not dissimilar to that of the neighbouring Caribbean island of Martinique. Of the ten songs on Bokanté’s debut album Strange Circles, two are in French (‘Heritier’ asks us to think about the legacy we are leaving the next generation) and the rest are delivered in Creole. Tirolien has the gift of conveying real emotion, even if we don’t exactly understand what it is she’s saying.

“We tried one song in English when we were recording [at the legendary Dreamlands Studio in New York] and were like, ‘No!!’” twinkles League. “It’s kind of like when you hear certain styles of music sung in different languages, flamenco sung in English, for example, and it feels wrong. For some weird reason for this band Creole works perfectly.”

While Tirolien, Collier, Haddad, Ferrari and Ogawa have all collaborated individually on Snarky Puppy projects, most notably on the Family Dinner recording sessions, many of the musicians in Bokanté hadn’t met until the first day of their week-long recording. Establishing a sense of unity was paramount: “The ensemble is multilingual, multicultural and multi-generational but we all feel connected as musicians and people. This combination of different accents gives a strangely common and poignant sound, a sound that can reach and relate to listeners around the world.”

Asked to file Bokanté under a genre, and League and Tirolien spar good-humouredly. Jazz? Rock? They shake their heads. League wants to call them a blues band but Tirolien doesn’t; the folky Gwo-ka rhythms from Guadeloupe and the three sets of percussion, she argues, are almost blues averse. From a guitar perspective, counters League, the root of Bokanté’s music is African, Delta blues and rock; ergo, the music of the blues.

“A lot of this stuff is so rich harmonically,” he says. “I think of the guitars like percussion instruments or voices; at any moment the guitars are playing something very rhythmic and short and groovy or else long slide melodies and harmonies in the same way as singers. The way I think of the band is having two singers: Malika and the guitars including Roosevelt.” They settle, reluctantly, on ‘world’ (“We’d rather not file us under anything”), what with Ogawa hailing from Japan, Ferrari from Sweden and the Lebanese-American Haddad having studied Karnatic traditions in South India among other musical pursuits including building his own instruments (“I’m a jazz musician who jumped the fence,” Haddad has said).

Bokanté’s one-love vibe tips over into songs such as ‘Nou Tout Sé Yonn’, which means ‘Remember We are One’ and ‘O La’, a song-come-fable about a lost man who is welcomed into a remote house and shown great hospitality before killing the owner and taking over, building a wall to keep people out. “One night comes a knock on a door and a cry of ‘I’m lost, can you help me?’” says Tirolien, who wrote it. Karma, it seems to be saying, is a bitch.

Tirolien flashes a grin. “This is why we called our album Strange Circles,” she says. “What goes around comes around.”

“It really does,” says League. “You’ll see.”

This article originally appeared in Songlines July #129. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit:

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