It’s unusual for a recently created band with no album and few live shows under its belt to get booked by major festivals on both sides of the Atlantic. Bokanté is a special band, however—an eight-piece outfit whose unique sound brings together elements of blues, rock, metal, funk, jazz, and African and Antillean music.
In lesser hands it could result in a mad dog’s breakfast. But while Bokanté is new, most of its members have played with each other for many years on the New York scene. Its musical director is Michael League, one of four members from jazz ensemble Snarky Puppy. Its singer, and cowriter of the music with League, is Malika Tirolien, born and raised in Guadeloupe in the eastern Caribbean.
“As a child I played classical piano, but being in Guadeloupe I was surrounded by local and traditional music such as zouk and gwo ka,” says Tirolien, reached in Guadeloupe, and speaking in French. “My father played records of all kinds of music—notably Bob Marley, and lots of jazz. I was a big fan of [local artist] Jean-Michel Rotin, and also love Kassav, the most internationally famous group from Guadeloupe, and many other zouk artists.”
Tirolien left the island to study jazz in Montreal, and stayed. Gifted with a clear and powerful voice, she rose rapidly to become a popular artist in Quebec. “I became a member of an artists’ collective [Community Vibe] that organizes weekly evenings of improvisation in Montreal. That’s where I met all the members of what became my own group, and was also able to embark on other projects—like with Groundfood, a group of hip-hop and soul. They opened for Snarky Puppy, and that’s how I met those guys.”
Soon a strange new band emerged, given the name Bokanté, which means “exchange” in creole from Guadeloupe. “Our instrumentation isn’t found much—it’s all guitars and percussion, plus my voice. No drums, no keyboards, no horns. Michael’s starting point was a mix of Delta blues and different musics from West Africa. After that he wanted everybody in the band to put in their own cultural baggage somewhere.”
Guitarists Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti as well as percussionist Keita Ogawa also play with Snarky Puppy. The other two percussionists are Jamie Hadad, who works with Paul Simon and Sting, and André Ferrari from Swedish traditional folk band Väsen. The fourth guitarist is “sacred steel” virtuoso Roosevelt Collier from the Lee Boys.
“Michael wanted everybody to put in their own cultural baggage somewhere, so I added my influences from Guadeloupe—and our three percussionists come from Japan, Lebanon, and Sweden,” Tirolien says. “I sing mainly in creole—about racism and extremism in religion, also problems with immigration, but always to look at solutions and remember that we’re all one. I also talk about what’s ahead for future generations, the joy of feeling support from your community, and some more esoteric things like death. And the circularity of karma, which is where the title of our [just released] album Strange Circles comes from—that everything is linked, and if problems aren’t dealt with they come back.”
Bokanté performs at the Vogue Theatre on Tuesday (June 27) as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.