By Beverly Richards
Special to the AFRO

It was mere minutes before the long-anticipated Bokante concert, Feb. 28 at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Md. Our initial interaction was in a dressing room scarcely spacious enough for two people and lengthy enough for maybe five or so. But when Michael League and Malika Tirolien, of Bokanté walked in, the room had no ceiling, walls or boundaries. They were two otherworldly souls moving in syncopation. Their vibe was peaceful, joyful and unconfined. And before they spoke a word, I knew this was going to be a meaningful encounter. And it was. They were as unguarded in conversation as they are in their music.

Vocalist and songwriter Malika Tirolien, and Grammy award-winning guitarist Micheal League. (Courtesy Photo)

“Malika is really good at writing stories that are allegorical. She wrote a song about colonialism. The story is about a man living in the middle of nowhere and someone comes along needing help. That person kills the homeowner and takes his house. But it comes back in full circle because the same happens to him. I feel like that is a much better way to tackle colonialism than by saying, ‘You’re white. You have blood on your hands,’” said League. Bokanté takes on social injustice and political issues emblematically.

“The word bokanté means “exchange” in Guadeloupian Creole,” said Tirolien, who grew up on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. She believes as artists, they have a responsibility to say things worth saying, “point out some stuff” and make the world a better place. 

“Bokanté,” described Michael, “is a fusion of international sounds, West African, Caribbean, Desert Blues, American Blues and Guadeloupian Creole. “I wanted Malika to sing in Creole because there is a sweetness, percussiveness to it. And she is a drum. Everyone is a drum. The band is a drum,” League said. “And I hope we touch as many people as possible with our music,” Tirolien chimed in.

Vocalist Malika Tirolien performs with the band at the Bokante concert, held at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Md. (Courtesy Photo)

That segment of the evening came to an end; and what came next can only be described as a sensorial experience — Bokanté in concert. The music was ancestral. The rhythms were as diverse as the civilizations of the Congo. Even if I couldn’t understand the words, I was transmitted to a place I had not physically been — the Motherland, Middle Passage, colonies — but I felt it. 

Tirolien bared her soul and painted landscapes and portraits through her voice and movements. She invoked the African goddesses and warriors. The pulsation of the bongos was primal, sensual, familiar. There was also a longing for togetherness, communication, mutual respect, and brotherhood in each lyric. Each member of Bokanté left it all on the stage.

The evening ended with a poignant tribute to League’s grandmother who had died that day at the age of 95. He talked about his last visit with her. Their bond was as powerful as Bokanté’s message.

The band consists of eight musicians from four continents: two-time Grammy award-winning guitarists Micheal League, Chris McQueen, and Bob Lanzetti (all from Snarky Puppy), percussion legend Jamey Haddad (Paul Simon, Sting), pedal and lap steel virtuoso Roosevelt Collier (Lee Boys, Karl Denson), and unplaceable percussionists André Ferrari (Väsen), Keita Ogawa (Banda Magda, Yo-Yo Ma) and vocalist Malika Tirolien.