Album Review: Bokanté – Strange Circles [GroundUP Music; September 2017]

Bokanté, the pop-up band debuted by New York-based jazz band Snarky Puppy founder Michael League, have just put out their first fusion pop-oriented album on GroundUP Music. The project, which name means ‘exchange’ in Creole, brings together a showcase of artists from varying sides of the globe, including lead vocalist Malika Tirolien, guitarists Chris McQueen, Bob Lanzetti, percussionist Jamey Haddad, Roosevelt Collier on the pedal and lap steel, along with André Ferrari and Keita Ogawa who both bring their frenetic percussion.

The album inaugurates smoothly with ‘O La’, with its guitar ornaments and curly rhythms. The intensity then scales with the tune of ‘Jou Ké Ouvè’, an almost anthemic track where percussion evokes a marching sound pattern and bass guitars display a final, splendid solo. In ‘Héritier’, Bokanté opt for a dreamy ballad with psychedelic touches à la ‘70s progressive rock. Tirolien’s multi-layered vocals reach a climax in ‘An Ni Chans’, backed by upbeat percussion layers – a track some listeners may find was inspired by iconic Malian duo Amadou & Mariam.

Not only is Strange Circles sound aesthetics somewhat relatable to the veteran West-African couple, but also the shared commitment to claiming for social justice present in their lyrics, pronounced in both French and Guadeloupean Creole. With their first production, Bokanté are set to raise the awareness of racism on refugees and provide a voice against environmental and human suffering.

Reminiscent of West-African traditional sounds, with a clear musical intention and socio-political stance, plus a rather modest instrument arrangement, Strange Circles is an enjoyable, world-music experience conceptually presented in a form possibly akin to today’s emerging acts like Cuban-French twins Ibeyi or London-based Ibibio Sound Machine.