Snarky Puppy’s Michael League Discusses Bokanté, Politics and Instrumentation

— Features — Joshua French

As multi-instrumentalist, composer and bandleader Michael League has developed his craft, an informed political voice has concurrently emerged. Where once his assiduous nature manifested in the depth and detail of his compositions and arrangements, it now also guides the founding objectives of his new projects – such as the politically-engaged supergroup Bokanté.

League, who leads the Grammy Award-winning fusion powerhouse Snarky Puppyformed the group in 2016 and their very make-up represents a positive statement about inclusion and cultural exchange. Bokanté features musicians hailing from five countries and four continents, each drawing upon unique skills and experiences to create an inviting, invigorating, sonically-and-culturally-aware sound.

Guadeloupean vocalist Malika Tirolien delivers her urgent lyrics in Creole, Swedish percussionist André Ferrari calls upon the skills honed in traditional music group VÄSEN and South Florida-raised lap steel player Roosevelt Collier brings a church-rooted sensitivity and spirituality to the group dynamic. On 2018 album What Heat, the band worked with the Netherlands-based Metropole Orkest, expanding their sound in conjunction with the rising intensity of their message.

League has been outspoken about the band’s desire to engage with important issues and ahead of their upcoming UK tour, which sees them playing in Manchester, Bristol and Leeds this month, expanded upon that. The articulate artist also discussed some of the music he’s currently enjoying and introduced one of the many lesser-known instruments that gave their last studio album its unique sonic stamp.

Bokanté formed with the intention of addressing socio-political subject matter, through music which blends sounds and ideas from various locations and cultures. Have events that have unfolded around the world since your formation reaffirmed the importance of what you’re doing? Have any particular issues taken on a greater significance in the group since you formed, and inspired any new or forthcoming music?

Michael League: ‘When the group formed, there was definitely the feeling of things moving in a certain direction… the Brexit vote was on the horizon, Marine Le Pen was gaining support in France, Duterte was talking about throwing criminals out of helicopters to their deaths, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan was taking extraordinary steps in Turkey to increase his authoritarian power. And in my country, the right-wing media was becoming less and less restrained in unnecessarily stoking fears among the nation’s white, “forgotten” majority. Since the first album, we’ve seen Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro gain power, Brexit pass, Hungary and Poland move backwards politically, and the idea of being racist, xenophobic, and anti-immigration become somewhat acceptable under the transparent umbrella of nationalism. For this reason, the first album feels a bit more observational, while our second is more of an urgent cry for help and action. Nearly half of our band are immigrants, and more than half minorities in the countries in which they live. The individuals in Bokanté feel these political shifts in real-time, as they happen.’

How much does the diversity within the band influence the outcome of your music? Does the range in age and lived experience give a well-rounded perspective upon the subjects you’re addressing and the musical styles you’re drawing from?

ML: ‘Everyone in the band is a student of everyone else. Each person contributes so much, and absorbs the same amount. I love having so many different perspectives in the group – there’s never a shortage of ideas.’

You used an incredible array of instruments to produce your new album, What Heat. Could you introduce us to one of the more unusual or uncommon instruments present on the record and tell us about the role it played, be that significant or relatively small?

ML: ‘I think that the oud (an Arabic 11-stringed lute) and daf (a Kurdish frame drum with metallic rings), which are actually relatively common instruments in certain parts of the Middle East, play uncommon roles on What Heat and shape the overall sound in a big way. I used the oud as more of a rhythmic instrument rather than a melodic one, almost like rhythm guitar, on this album. To me, the blues and oud go together in a very natural way, and I tried to exploit that. As far the daf goes, Keita and I stayed away from playing traditional rhythms and utilised its large palette of colors to use it as more of an accent instrument, entering in crucial moments and playing sparsely.’

Following the European tour, you’ll convene with friends old and new at the GroundUP festival. Who are you looking forward to hearing and meeting over the weekend?

ML: ‘I’m particularly excited to see a band that we first encountered while on tour in Colombia called ‘La Perla’. In the United States they are completely obscure – four female percussionists who also play gaita, a giant traditional woodwind instrument – and put on a show that I can only describe as spiritual.

My favourite part of GroundUP Music Festival is watching audiences be moved by artists they’ve never heard of. You leave there feeling hopeful about the state of music in the world, and with the idea that there are beautiful worlds out there yet to be discovered. Of course, hanging with my friends and joint artists-in-residence Lalah Hathaway and Richard Bona will be special as well. I’m actually looking forward to pretty much everything!’

Is there anywhere Bokanté are yet to play that you’re desperate to visit?

ML: ‘Yes! The Caribbean. So much of what we do (especially Malika) is the product of Caribbean influence and its spirit, and yet we’ve never been there! It’s one of the only places in the world that will understand the lyrics as Malika sings them. We’ve gotten so used to not being understood without explanation beforehand that I think it would really be interesting for the band, and especially for Malika, being back home’.

You recently shared a fantastic list of records that you’re enjoying via All About Jazz, including works by Innov Gnawa and Kardes Türküler. Are there any others you would like to recommend?

ML: ‘I’ve been listening to a Mahmoud Gania album called “Colors of the Night” almost every day, as well as a very interesting album by Ömer Faruk Tekbilek called “Alif.” I’d recommend both strongly!’

Photo credit: Stella K

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