Album review: Bokante built for in-your-face sound

By Garrett Bethmann for Tahoe Onstage 


Michael League, de facto leader of funk orchestra sensations Snarky Puppy, has assembled another musical tour de force of international rhythms and grooves with new band Bokante and its debut album Strange Circles.

Bokante has been culled from the deep and diverse cast of musicians that League has surrounded himself with through travels abroad and his own label, GroundUP Music. In addition to League, this eight-piece includes vocalist Malika Tirolien, guitarists Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti from Snarky Puppy, percussion virtuoso Jamey Haddad, pedal and lap steel legend Roosevelt Collier and accomplished percussionists André Ferrari and Keita Ogawa. League has proved himself a visionary and bandleader with a knack for making huge, intricate music and Bokante only reaffirms those talents.

The music on Strange Circles is a rich and deep sonic experience whose depth reveals itself more after each listen. The album’s palette stretches from electrified Caribbean folk to Delta blues to West African funk and has the visceral intensity of Led Zepplin at its most engaging. If you are hip to Snarky Puppy’s orchestrated rhythms then you know where Bokante is coming from and it is a very satisfying experience to have the lush sound surround you and imbed itself within your soul, engrossing you in the exotic aural world the band has constructed.

Opening track “Jou Ké Ouvè” sets the tone for Strange Circles with its desert blues stomp, cascading vocals and interwoven rhythms. Malika Tirolien’s multi-layered vocals form a thick ribbon of sound that rises with the searing guitars like a colorful scarf floating in the desert breeze, bold and uplifting. It’s clear from the start Tirolien’s captivating voice is the heart of the album and her parts are the melodic and rhythmic backbone for the all the charging polyrhythms on the songs, as evidenced on the percussive groove “Nou Tout Sé Yonn” and the shimmering meditation “Apathie Mortelle.” She sings in both Creole and French, giving her a unique tone and sound akin to any other instrument.

The rest of the musicians are tasked with connecting their varied personal styles into one cohesive sound, which they do with exceptional majesty. Take for instance “An Ni Chans,” which starts as a West African funk onslaught filled with flittering guitars and propulsive percussion, which is right up Ogawa, Ferrari and Haddad’s alley. They then manage to cool out into a sparse reggae-tinged section that features the enchanting tones of Collier’s steel guitar rising from the thick traditions of the Delta.

With four guitarists and three percussionists, Bokante is built for an in-your-face sound and uses that to its advantage on songs such as “Roudesann” and the towering “Vayan.” But the subtleties aren’t lost from the band either and it shines on the quieter intricate songs as well, none more so than “Limyè” and the otherwordly percussion tones that are featured throughout the mystical piece. Considering most of the musicians didn’t know each other before the week-long recording session for “Strange Circles,” they’ve put together quite the air-tight sound.

There is a hook in Bokante’s music that is hard to detach yourself from and it grows deeper the more time you spend with it. You’ll want to spend hours listening to Strange Circles losing yourself in the layers of sound, finding new sonic nuggets with each repeat listen. You will too, because this is Michael League’s world and we are all just living in it.