Michael League: Bass Meets Baritone in Bokanté

Michael League is at it again, infusing a fresh artistic vision with the finest old-school musical influences to create a sonic juggernaut, as he did with his Grammy-winning, horn-laden ensemble Snarky Puppy.
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Michael League is at it again, infusing a fresh artistic vision with the finest old-school musical influences to create a sonic juggernaut, as he did with his Grammy-winning, horn-laden ensemble Snarky Puppy. This time, maestro League has conceived Bokanté, a multicultural octet featuring vocalist Malika Tirolien, lap and pedal steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier, Puppy guitarists Bob Lanzetti and Chris McQueen, and percussionists Jamey Haddad, André Ferrari, and Keita Ogawa—with Michael providing bottom via his Hofner and Kala U-Bass, and his beloved Danelectro baritone guitar. As captured on the band’s ten-track debut, Strange Circles, the guitar-heavy sound has been characterized as Led Zeppelin meets Delta blues meets West African music, with powerful, sociopolitical lyrics delivered in Creole. The aural reality is grinding, gut-gratifying blues riffs, kinetic percussion, and resounding universal chants, underneath a fireworks show of ear-opening harmonic colors.

You’ve credited a new compositional process for the start of Bokanté.

That’s right; over the past few years, whenever I have an idea—a melody, a groove, a bass riff—I record it into my iPhone without second-guessing it. Listening back, I noticed many of the ideas had a swampy blues vibe, which didn’t really fit Snarky Puppy, so I thought about starting a new band. I love the baritone guitar and I wanted that to figure in, as well. The project is a return to my roots: starting on guitar at 14 and being equally influenced by Robert Johnson, Jimmy Page, and [West African guitarist/vocalist] Ali Farka Touré. The next step was reaching out to musicians I’ve met along my journey who fit the sound and instrumentation I had in mind.

How did the music come together?

The key is Malika Tirolien, who is a powerful musical force and one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard. I would write music and send her MP3s and lyrical concepts, and she would email me back with lyrics, melodies, and vocal harmonies. It was like Christmas every time I’d get an email from her, because what she sent was always much cooler than I anticipated. From there, I sent the finished demos to the band to learn, and I set up a recording date at Dreamland Recording Studios, which is a former church outside of Woodstock, New York. We had one guitar rehearsal the night before, and then we hit the studio for a week, and we went track by track, with everyone creating their parts.

Bokanté, with Michael League back row, center

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How was the language and the direction of the lyrics determined?

I knew the band was likely not going to have English lyrics. Malika, who is from Guadaloupe, speaks English, French, and Creole. I asked her to try Creole, because it’s more percussive than French, and it clicked instantly. The only songs in French are the two ballads. Content-wise, the times we’re living in was another reason I wanted to start the band. Snarky Puppy is fairly apolitical, but one of the goals with Bokanté, which means “exchange” in Creole, was to make music that has a message. We’re addressing topics like xenophobia, exclusion, the dying ecosystem, and apathy toward human suffering. We’re trying to spread a message of acceptance, awareness, unity, and diversity. As an international band, we’re an example of how cool it can be when people don’t give into fear and draw lines.

Musically, the songs sound like a collection of melodies moving through minimal changes, while the harmonic magic is happening vertically.

That’s how I look at it. Many of the songs are simply I–V, so the harmonic colors have to come on top of that. I told Malika to go crazy with her vocal harmonies, and she stacks open-sounding intervals that sound amazing; “Apathie Mortelle” is one of my favorite examples. In addition, we stumbled upon this concept where, given the static bass lines, we can use the three remaining guitars as harmonic tools that move around melodically and impose out-sounding harmonies, yet it never feels too jazzy, like it would if you played it all on a Fender Rhodes. You can hear that on the B section of “Vayan,” where the guitars play D, A, E, and B triads over the E pedal. That’s sort of my Soundgarden reference [laughs].

The bass line on “Limye” hints a different tonalities, with both the major and the minor 6th.

I look at that as more of a melody than a harmonic indicator, although it’s moving slowly enough for each note to suggest a harmonic flavor. Technically, there’s no one playing chords in the song, other than when a guitar plays a B and E hammering part just before the last chorus. Everyone is playing single-note lines that create the harmony collectively. “Nou To Se Yan” has that, too, where the harmony is largely informed by three slide-guitar melodies over the bass line. “Limye,” which means “life,” was written the day Prince died, and Malika’s first lyric is, “Today another light went out.” The outro harmony is essentially B to C#m, but the last chord is a B triad with a b9—an unfinished sound, which alluded to our feelings about Prince’s passing.

Let’s talk about your love of the baritone guitar.

That started with my love of tic-tac bass in country music, Wrecking Crew rock and pop of the ’60s, and spaghetti-western soundtracks—where, in a doubled bass line, an acoustic or electric bass provided the deep, warm part of the note, and the baritone guitar added the high end attack and point of the note. The two songs that had the biggest influence on me are Frank Sinatra’s “The World We Knew” [The World We Knew, 1967, Reprise], where a distorted baritione guitar opens the track, and Glenn Campbell’s beautiful baritone solo on “Wichita Lineman” [Wichita Lineman, 1968, Capitol]. [Ed. note: Campbell played the solo on a 1968 Danelectro six-string borrowed from Carol Kaye, who played her Fender Precision on the track.] On the Bokanté album, I would say 50 percent of the time I’m doubling my bass lines, and for the other half, I’m acting as a third guitar.

For live shows, you’ve chosen to play baritone guitar only, so you can perform with some of your bass heroes.

So far we’ve had Paul Bender from Hiatus Kaiyote, Jonathan Maron [Groove Collective, Maxwell], and Jay White, a great bassist/vocalist/songwriter who works with Cory Henry. My instructions to them are: Learn the songs, and then play what you want. They’re all musical enough to know when to stick to the part and when to improvise. Locking with them and trying to get inside their feels has been a total blast. I’ve got so many players on my wish list: Lee Sklar, Tim Lefebvre, Bobby Vega, Pino Palladino, John Patitucci, Victor Wooten. It’s endless!


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Bokanté, Strange Circles [2017, GroundUP]; Snarky Puppy, Culcha Vulcha [2016, Ground-UP]; David Crosby, Light-house [2016, GroundUP]


Bokanté basses 1967 Hofner 500/1; Kala U-Bass
Baritone guitar 1956 Danelectro with D’Addario EXL157 Nickel Wound Medium strings and a heavy-gauge Dunlop pick
Amps Signature Markbass Casa amp head
Recording Bokanté Direct via Jule Amps Monique preamp/DI, and a miked Ampeg B-15
Other TC-Hellicon VoiceLive for vocal harmonies live

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Michael League: Top Dog with Snarky Puppy

WHETHER YOUR FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH SNARKY Puppy is via the web, disc, or live, it’s difficult not to be impressed: a dozen musicians delivering mind-opening, groove-rooted instrumental music, tastefully arranged and played, and enthusiastically communicated.