What Heat: Bokanté's bold new album

It is almost impossible to describe Bokanté without making them sound ridiculous. Their eight-piece line up consists of three percussionists, four guitarists (including baritone and steel pedal) and a singer; their songs are written predominantly in Guadeloupian Creole; and their musical influences are so wide-ranging that possibly the only genre into which they could be placed is ‘world’.

Held together by powerful lead singer Malika Tirolien and band-leader and baritone guitarist Michael League – whose other project, Snarky Puppy, has been in the vanguard of modern jazz-fusion, and with whom all of Bokanté’s members have previously collaborated – their 2017 album Strange Circles was certainly one of the most innovative albums to come out of America’s new jazz scene. For its follow up, released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records, Michael League has collaborated with the Netherlands’ Metropole Orkest under the baton of Jules Buckley (of 2015’s BBC Radio 1 Grime Prom fame), with whom he last worked on Snarky Puppy’s 2015 album Sylva, to create a truly unique set of tracks.

With opening track and lead single All the Way Home we are already in strange waters. Underpinned throughout by League’s hypnotic single-note oud riff, the Metropole Orkest’s earthy string section and the percussion trio of Jamey Haddad, André Ferrari, and Keita Ogawa bring a rich warmth and driving intensity, over which Tirolien’s percussive vocal lines weave effortlessly.

The tempo picks up with Fanm, which seems rooted in the funk styles where guitarists Bob Lanzetti and Chris McQueen are most at home, but transposed into an acoustic setting. Tirolien’s energetic call-and-response vocals push the track forward, and here Buckley’s orchestral flourishes begin to stand out before steel pedal guitarist Roosevelt Collier leads a lush ritardando into Lé An Gadé-w En Zyé. A needed change in intensity, its rich strings and vocal harmonies intertwine with rhythmically complex percussion lines, before the Metropole Orkest’s wind section leads a bebop-influenced instrumental coda.

Réparasyons emerges as a pounding percussion groove crescendos out of silence, running the risk of overpowering Tirolien’s delicate melodic line and Lanzetti’s acoustic guitar arpeggios. The string theme continues, at times reminiscent of a film soundtrack, and we have the album’s first real guitar solo, a surprising show of restraint considering Lanzetti and McQueen’s jazz-fusion pedigrees.

A winding acoustic guitar riff reminiscent of Ry Cooder underpins the bluesy first half of Bòd Lanmé Pa Lwe, which quickly opens up into a heavy percussion-driven jam led by Collier’s slide guitar soloing and ends with a brief but exciting section of string and multi-tracked vocal counterpoint.

The repeated guitar riff of Don’t Do It seems most influenced by afro-beat pioneers like Fela Kuti, while its persistent percussion groove and fills would fit easily into an Afro-Cuban jazz band. Tirolien’s repeated chorus chant of “Don’t do it / Don’t do it / Don’t do it”, some of the few English lyrics on the album, seems to have some political meaning. More room is found in the latter half of the track for improvisation, backed by big band style horn stabs; however, possibly due to the limitations of acoustic instruments, this is not always as distinct as one might like.

“If Bokanté is in it for the long run, it is almost impossible to guess where they will go next.”

Chambre à Échos brings an increased level of rhythmic complexity, something possibly expected from League’s previous work, and features the album’s most strikingly cinematic and huge orchestral textures. The oud again provides the repeated riff underpinning this track, while Tirolien’s soulful vocals manage to sit gracefully above a full instrumental texture, before her improvised vocalisations in the track’s latter section.

On What Heat’s closing track, Maison En Feu, Collier begins by taking us to the Mississippi Delta with a slide guitar solo. Out of this comes Tirolien’s increasingly urgent vocals which culminate in an impassioned spoken word exhortation that ‘il attend dutiliser notre pouvoir’, delivered over pounding percussion and full orchestral calls, the culmination of the album’s dramatic and cinematic style of instrumentation.

For a band whose debut was so rooted in amplified instruments and extended improvisations, the decision to record a purely acoustic, carefully arranged, and highly orchestrated second album was certainly bold. League’s masterful production gives the recordings a true sense of space and size – in the most literal sense this is a huge album – and, despite a somewhat limited orchestral palate, Buckley’s arrangements sit easily with the rest of the band, complementing rather than dominating. However, this perhaps comes at the cost of not giving certain tracks enough room to breathe, and at times Bokanté’s members’ individual musical voices struggle to be heard – a shame considering the band is essentially a supergroup made up of virtuosos.

It is hard to tell whether Bokanté is essentially a short-term project or in it for the long run; if they are the latter, it is almost impossible to guess where they will go next.