Interview: Bokanté – ‘Love, Openness and Empathy’ (October 2018)

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A band steeped in societal message, Bokanté strive to bring more awareness to social abstraction and human indifference. Through a cultural exchange and mingling of musical languages, the new group (formed by Snarky Puppy founder Michael League) cover a diverse spectrum of styles.

Despite the heavy theme of their lyrics, this is a collaborative that pay equally serious attention to the depth of musicianship. You’ll encounter rocky desert blues rolling into folkloric Caribbean swings. Although this sounds confusing, the group successfully brings these flavours together into a single tasty offering on the new album What Heat (published by Real World Records). Their tunes are accessible, catchy and layered with beautiful harmonies.

The musical union is made up of eight well-known musicians and fronted by Montreal based vocalist Malika Tirolien. Tirolien grew up in Guadeloupe and sings in her native mixture of Creole and French. She is joined by Snarky Puppy members Michael League, Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti on guitars. Teaming up with them are Jamey Haddad on percussion, legend Roosevelt Collier on pedal and lap steep, and two percussionists André Ferrari and Keita Ogawa. Between the eight players they cover four continents and have won two Grammys – a super-group in rolling motion.

Michael League answered some questions about how such a collective was spurred together and what is important for them to emote in their audience.

What was the initial idea and drive that brought you together?
I was writing music that didn’t fit in Snarky Puppy’s wheelhouse, but it all sounded unified, so I thought I should create a band to play it. Once I started thinking of the musicians who would be the best fit, the concept began to crystallize and inspired new ideas and directions. In addition, having so many people from so many different places and generations deepens everyone’s experience. It’s fascinating.

What are the main messages behind your music? How do you want people to react to your music?
The songs generally revolve around social and political issues: racism, xenophobia, human rights, the refugee crisis. On the positive end, we can focus on community, unity, celebrating who we are and what we can do to make things better. The central theme of the band is empathy; we want to encourage people to reach out and seek to understand what others are experiencing, and to care enough about them to help. Music is such an evocative, powerful device. You can really rip people open and change how they see the world. Our hope is that our music makes listeners want to be better.

How do you manage to synchronise so many different voices and styles when writing with this diverse group?
Each person brings a lifetime of their own experiences, truths, and ideas. Welcoming those is easy enough but incorporating them into a succinct and cohesive sound is the real challenge. It’s a process, but I think we get better at it every day.

Touring is the ultimate incubator. You go out and play night after night and begin to grow closer in every way. Then you go to record in a studio and everything gets put under the microscope. You learn from that and try to bring that knowledge to the next session. Then the cycle repeats.

Do you write for yourself or for a specific audience?
If you don’t believe in and enjoy your own music, it’s a bit illogical to assume that others will. So, we first try to write things that excite us; make us feel things. After that, we put it out to whoever feels like listening.

Which track is most sentimental for you on the new album and why?
I think that ‘Chambre à Échos’ does that for me. I wrote most of the music for this album while in Istanbul for six weeks. There’s a lot of Turkish influence throughout. That tune, for example, was written on oud and demoed with a Kurdish frame drum called daf. It was a beautiful time for me and this song brings back the smell of the food, the sound of the street, and the faces of the people I met. In fact, you can hear a local muezzin singing a call to prayer at the beginning of the demo recording I made in that Istanbul apartment. He was so close that I couldn’t really record anything without the microphone picking him up.

In three words, summarise the most important emotions you’d like to share through your music.
Three ideals: Love, openness and empathy.

What do you have lined up next?
We’re on a tour now of Holland (with the Metropole Orkest conducted by Jules Buckley), Poland, and Japan. We’ll then play throughout the UK next year and maybe some of Western Europe. Our priority is really getting our new album with the Metropole, What Heat, out into the world.

Photo ©: York Tillyer

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