A single note of a foreign instrument, dancing with its simple but exotic rhythm, draws us into Michael League’s latest exploration, “All The Way Home.” League, founding member and primary composer for jazz behemoths Snarky Puppy, has little fear when it comes to matters of musical convention. Winner of three Grammy awards, Snarky Puppy has bent and broken the barriers of jazz through uncanny musicianship and uniquely imaginative compositions. He and his continually evolving cabinet of musicians have revitalized the contemporary jazz music scene and, in the process, have become ambassadors of jazz to a whole new generation. We’ve seen many before become content in their formula for success, but League presses on in his creative expedition.
League’s newest side project, Bokante, meaning “exchange” in its singer’s native Creole, is undoubtedly that. The recent single has drawn musicians, artists and dancers from four continents to work together to help realize their collective musical vision. On bass, daf, vocals, and his haunting single-note pattern on the Middle Eastern oud, League maintains a peripheral focus throughout. He’s soon followed by the full band’s powerful entrance. With fellow Snarky members Bob Lanzetti and Chris McQueen on acoustic guitar, as well as renown lap steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier adding in some subtle but powerful slide. The guitars are in a beautifully supportive role on this track, leaving enough space to emphasize the churning march of the drums.
On percussion, League chose to highlight “All The Way Home” with some of the most phenomenal players from totally diverse rhythmic backgrounds. Originally from Nagasaki, Japan, Kieta Ogawa moved to Rio De Janiero to further his musical studies after attending the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston. Blending his influences from all over the globe, he has become one of the most sought-after players in the world. Jamey Haddad, also a Berklee graduate, chose the sub-continent of India to advance his development before returning to the United Staes to support the music of Paul Simon, Steve Gadd and more 150 other recordings. And finally there’s the transcendent Weedie Braimah. One of my personal favorites, Weedie was born a 111th generation percussion shaman and performed in his native Ghana before relocating to St. Louis at the age of 14. He has since become a truly captivating live performer, seemingly tapping into the rhythmic ether at will.
But the true and deliberate showcase of the piece is vocalist Malika Tirolien (pictured above at the 2017 High Sierra Music Festival). Originally featured on Snarky Puppy’s “Family Dinner Vol. 1,” the vocals start in English before she switches to Creole. This brings a piece centered around the struggles of our home both a familiarity and distance. Her powerful, delicate voice is in a language beyond definition, but the content still seems to resonate. The veiled subject of the song is an undeniably relatable theme for most today: the oppression of the individual by the state, and the feeling of helplessness that one is left with. The topic is close to taboo in pop music these days, but it’s vital for artists to continually speak out, in every language, on every continent. Michael League and his bandmates in Bokante are challenging their conventions and, in the process, perhaps some others. In that regard, “All The Way Home” seems to be a breakthrough, not to mention League only plays one note the whole song. Now that’s definitely a breakthrough.
— Dan Green
Editor’s note: “All The Way Home” is a single from the Bokante with the Metropole Orkest album “What Heat,” which will be released in the United States on Oct. 5, on Peter Gabriel’s label, Real World Records. Bokante will appear Saturday, Sept. 16 at the SF Jazz Center’s Miner Auditorium and Saturday, Sept. 23 at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
— Album review: Bokante’s “Strange Circles.”
— Tahoe Onstage readers’ choices for 2017 albums of the year.