What does it take to make of good cocktail? The trick is to use the right measuring cups and shakers, a balanced mix of juices, liquor and spices and a splash of creativity. ‘What Heat’ by the multinational Bokanté is such a cocktail. A wonderous fusion of cultures and musical idioms. A blend that reveals new aromas with every sip. A keeper on the menu. Indeed, an important album.
The man behind the bar? Tireless Michael League. As if conquering the world with Snarky Puppy isn’t a fulltime job already, League is head of the GroundUP label, a champion for musician’s rights and a distinctive producer, notably responsible for the sound design of David Crosby’s sublime ‘Lighthouse’ (2016) and more recently, ‘Here If You Listen’. He really must need very little sleep as he also immerses himself in other passions, like mastering Turkish percussion and the art of the oud, a (North) African and Middle Eastern lute-like string instrument.
In Bokanté, League surrounds himself with true masters of their domain. Musicians out of five countries and nearly as many continents. On percussion: Jamey Haddad, André Ferrari, Keith Ogawa and djembe supremo Weedie Braimah (who also played on Bill Laurance‘s ‘Aftersun’). On guitar, there’s Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti, two of Snarky Puppy’s usual suspects. And Roosevelt Collier plays pedal steel (prominently on closing track La Maison En Feu).
And then there’s this fenomenal, multifaceted voice, which belongs to Guadeloupean singer Malika Tirolien. Together these nine unique identities make all boundaries evaporate. Just like that.
On its second album ‘What Heat’, Bokanté time travels back to the roots of the blues in Africa and the Arabic world, bringing back its finest elements and merging them with delta blues, Caribean music and a range of other influences, until someting new and exciting appears. The acoustic guitar arpeggio’s of McQueen and Lanzetti add western, almost singer-songwriter-like flair. And importantly, the Dutch Metropole Orkest gives wings to Bokanté’s sound.
Michael League and conductor Jules Buckley masterly avoid the pitfalls of the orchestra treatment – as they previously managed to do on ‘Sylva’ (2015), which landed Snarky Puppy a Grammy Award. ‘What Heat’ is all about unpredictable and exploring writing and arranging. Groove and melody come first.
The orchestral backdrop is always stylish, never ever blatant, always right on point. You can sense that these arrangements were intensely polished. But you can’t discern their screws and the seams. The orchestra rocks, soothes and rages in the background. And then sometimes it bursts out with an instrumental flash, to baffling effect.
World on fire
The song closest to my heart? Definitely Famn, which translates as The Woman. It touches a nerve unlike anything I discovered in the past few months. Its off-centre rhythm, deep bass, hissing and ominous strings, the tapestry of voices, the ‘speed bump’ at 02:32, the oud coda, … Chillingly beautiful.
Tirolien’s lyrics (often in Guadeloupean Creole) seem to focus on the state our world is in. Take Bod Lanme Pa Lwen, which means The Beach Is Not Far. The viewpoint of a sunbather or the yearning cry of a refugee on a rickety boat? The final words of the album leave no doubt about Bokanté’s social engagement: “Il est temps d’utiliser notre pouvoir / Maintenant” [“It’s time to use our power. Right now.”]
I’m far from done with ‘What Heat’, that’s for sure. It’s a deep, fun, layered and, dare I say, important album. Because it reflects on the world on fire. Because it’s a mirror of our complex society. Because it shows how boundaries and genres are merely artifects, which we can transcended. Again, ‘What Heat’ is a beautiful, important record.