An overwhelming feeling of openness consumed the main hall as Bokante took to the Boston House of Blues’ main stage for CRASHFEST. Percussionists Jamey Haddad, Weedie Braimah, and Marcelo Woloski (filling in for Andre Farrari) erupted in a rhythmic frenzy, causing an immediate stream of shouts and cries from the dancing bodies making up the crowd. Malika Torilien never seemed to stop smiling as she danced with audience members in-between impeccable solos. Rooted in soul, blues, and unprecedented control, the solos evoked several squeezed expressions from Roosevelt Collier on steelpad, who himself poured out enough blues and gospel to fill the soul. From behind, bassist Juila Adams ensured a groove alongside Michael League, who rocked baritone guitar and occasionally oud. Together they set a perfect foundation for Bob Lanzetti and Chris McQueen to set fire to the stage on guitar. Every last person played with masterful musicianship that seemed to flourish in the familial atmosphere amongst the band’s members. This same energy was displayed as we sat down with Malika Torilien and Michael League to discuss League’s recent visit to Berklee College of Music, the creative process of the group, and their ultimate mission as a band.
How did Bokante come to be?
ML: I always try to keep writing, but sometimes my ideas don't really fit the project. So I had a bunch of stuff on my phone and none of it really fit my band Snarky Puppy. It all sounded like the same thing: a band that didn’t exist yet. So I just figured that I’d try to create that band. I called a bunch of my friends, most of whom are not in Snarky Puppy, and just tried to put together a group of people whose personalities would mix well, and whose musical personalities would mix well and serve the kind of music I wanted to make. Malika was an obvious choice because she and I had been working together with Snarky Puppy—she had been a guest on our first record Family Dinner. She’s able to sing in 3 languages; she raps and writes, and she’s also an instrumentalist. She’s a complete musician, so it all kind of made sense.
Where did you two meet?
MT: Montreal...well, I saw him when Snarky Puppy played in Montreal. After that I had a band named GroundFood and we opened for Snarky Puppy, so that’s when we officially got to talk and meet.
Can you talk to me about GroundFood and the Kalmunity Project?
MT: Kalmunity is a collective of musicians in Montreal, and it’s from that collective that GroundFood was born; we chose the musicians from Kalmunity and made a band. GroundFood doesn’t exist now, but it was a really cool band. We had three albums, and a lot of these guys still play in my band.
Both of you work in ensembles that have a pretty substantial amount of collaborators. How does that work within the creative process?
MT: In Bokante we’re the main writers, but if the other writers have ideas we listen. For example, on our first album Andre Ferrari had an idea in 7, and he just sent it and we wrote a song with it. So it’s like that if anyone has an idea—if it’s percussive then we’re going to add music, lyrics, and melody on it, and if not we’re going to write it together.
What was it like working with Tia Fuller and the Snarky Puppy Ensemble at Berklee?
ML: It was fun. I mean, it’s a little surreal to see a group playing your music, you know? But it was cool! The students were great. They were really receptive to me being there and exchanging ideas about stuff. And of course I love Tia; I’ve known her for a long time. So it was a lot of fun.
What was it like adding an entire orchestra to that process? How did the arrangements come into play?
ML: The first record we wrote we wrote via email. I would send her tracks and she would send me back the top line, the melody and the lyrics. For the second record we met at my house; I had ideas, she had ideas, and we put them together. We wrote in real time, and when we had the songs done I did the orchestral arrangements. Then I brought those to Jules Buckley, the conductor of the Metropole Orkest, who edited them and wrote part of the arrangements, which I edited after that. So it was sort of a fluid process.
How do you translate all of that on stage as you’re touring?
MT: We toured with the orchestra a little, bit but it’s not easy touring with an orchestra! It happened and it was epic, but usually we just tour with the band and the music still works without the orchestra.
ML: We can play every song without the orchestra because we put some of the orchestral parts in the guitars.
MT: And some of the vocals were arranged in an orchestral way.
In an interview 3 years ago you guys joked about touring in a van. Are you guys still touring in a van?
ML: Yes, we are. This tour is in a van, right?
MT: I don’t know...I don’t think it’s the same kind of van.
ML: It’s a slightly nicer van, but it’s still a van. It’s not as nice as an RV—it’s like a sprinter, so it’s a comfortable van. The drives are about five hours, so it’s not bad.
What is CRASHFEST, and what’s the concept behind it?
ML: It’s kind of similar to a festival I have in Miami called GroundUp Music Festival, in that the idea is just to bring a bunch of artists from different places, genres, and areas of the world, and bring them together. Even if you don’t know everyone on the bill, you go with an open mind and check everybody out, trusting the organizers. From looking at the line up it seems like a really cool thing. I’m excited.
Do you prefer festivals or doing your own shows?
MT: I like festivals, because you have a better chance of reaching a bigger audience. It’s people you wouldn't reach normally, and you get to meet other musicians. You’re there and you play, but at the same time you get inspired by other people. It’s really a beautiful experience to me. I really like festivals.
What inspired the switch from bass to baritone guitar for this group?
ML: I’ve been playing baritone guitar since 2009. I got really into it because I love instruments that are in between registers, like oud and baritone guitar—things that sit in weird ranges. Because I’m a bass player I work a lot with the low end of things, so baritone guitar gives you the ability to play guitar chords and voicings in a much deeper register. And I feel like with this band, because we don’t have a drum set, it works really well. There’s space at the bottom end of the sound that would normally get filled up by a kick drum or a floor tom, but now there’s space for us as guitar players.
A lot of the lyrics are written in Creole and/or French. Is that a conscious decision, or is it a result of whatever comes out during the creative process?
MT: It’s kind of both. With this band, the guys don’t really like it when I write in English—it works better if I write in French and Creole.
ML: In her band I think English is great, but there’s something about the sound of this band where English just doesn't work. It’s really weird.
MT: So I write in French or Creole, and it’s whatever comes for the song.
As a group, what is your goal?
MT: Well, I don’t know about you, but I see that group as a statement. It’s a statement in itself. What we wanted at the beginning when we started this group was to spread the message of being together, even if we’re not from the same places, and being able to communicate musically and spread an important social and political message. At the same time it’s representing where we’re from. I’m really excited to be representing Guadalupe and spreading Creole around the world. It’s really a great thing, just to be able to learn from other musicians, their backgrounds and their cultures, is something really rich.
What was it like working with David Crosby?
ML: He’s great! He’s like my grumpy old grandfather; he turns 79 in August. He’s actually writing more now than he’s ever written in his life. He’s a really sweet guy, awesome and super inspiring, and in love with music. He challenges himself to work with younger musicians, people who kick his butt instead of just treating him like a god, people who will tell him “that note is out of tune.” And I respect that because a lot of people his age, with that amount of fame and history, can really just sit back. But he has no intention of doing that. He’s always trying to push forward. He’s a very kind person who’s lived a very interesting life; he’s lucky to have survived so much, and he lives everyday like he’s grateful for that. He’s inspired me a lot.
How do you #getinthegroove?
MT: Well, it always changes. Sometimes it’s just an idea, like a bass line, melody, lyric, or chorus. Sometimes I have to sit and try to write something.; sometimes it just comes and flows. It really just depends whether it’s inspiration or work.
ML: Yeah, it’s kind of both. Sometimes ideas come easily and sometimes it's just a matter of time, where you have to sit down and work at something and then an idea comes. Generally, for me to develop anything, I need time. Time without the phone, without emails, without people. I just need to be by myself and have time to allow ideas to incubate. That’s the big thing for me. The minute I get distracted, it knocks me back an hour. I have to allow myself to get into the world of whatever idea I’m exploring.