Photo from Music Works International
(Union Chapel, 7 July 2017. Review by Dan Bergsagel)
It looked like a musical brawl was brewing at the Union Chapel: three men entrenched in percussion on the left, five on the right armed with gleaming guitars. There are instruments, sure, but it doesn’t look like a band as we know it. But Bokanté are a Michael League project, the bassist who made his name at the helm of the enormous amorphous musical party troupe that is Snarky Puppy. No one was expecting a dinner jazz trio.
While League is the household name that may have drawn in the crowd, it is Malika Tirolien – mediating in the middle of the stage between the strings and the percussion – who provides Bokanté with its unique sound. As the co-composer, her Creole and French lyrics, melodies and rhythmic structures are at the band’s core.
Indeed opener Ola is pinned on Tirolien’s relentless vocals, with more slide guitar than you can shake a stick at, and a glut of tambourines pounding a rolling backing. The sheer number of similar instruments is no accident, but an effective take on live triple-tracking with percussion layered like oil paint and noodling guitars setting a rich backdrop for strong abstract improvisation for guest Montreal guitarist Jordan Peters.
Jou Ké Ouvè swaggers in with a righteous rock riff from Snarky Puppy litter member Chris McQueen and stomping drum snaps, backing the phalanx of guitarists acting as a backing chorus. Lap steel maestro Roosevelt Collier shreds away, always with a robust groove for any improvisation to latch on to.
Not to be out done, André Ferrari wove a percussive story on a Nord pad, a collection of chimes, and a magic whistling instrument clasped in his mouth throughout the concert, before Jamey Haddad and Keita Ogawa combined using to great effect a selection of brushes you’d expect in a janitor’s cupboard. Limyè, written for one of 2016’s early musical losses Prince, and up tempo An Ni Chans showcased the understanding these three very different percussionists have developed.
My Creole, I’ll admit, is not what it used to be, but Tirolien shares with us much of the meaning behind the songs. These are songs about community, and unity, about light, and about frogs. We’re warned against complacency in life and protest – to not be slowly cooked as the heat is turned up bit by bit on our society – but we warned against a backdrop of some very laid back funk from Brooklyn bassist Jay White. This is protest music which doesn’t want to get too agitated while making a point.
This style and theme and of unity sits well with a band formed from members hailing from a handful of different states and provinces in North America, and Guadeloupe, Sweden and Japan to boot. The Bokanté project is about cultural exchange and coming together from different places, which all seems rather appropriate for the appropriately chosen venue of the Union Chapel. But the Chapel is also as nonconformist in its origins as the band, who formed online and assembled to record the debut album Strange Circles before everyone had even met. Bokanté’s members bring enough different musical influences to the table that its groaning under the weight. On paper it sounded like a risky approach, but with League’s ear for a groove, and Tirolien’s mesmerising vocals, no one needed to conform.