What Heat: Track by Track

Bokanté's Michael League and Malika Tirolien are the band's songwriting core. For the album What Heat, Michael wrote the music and collaborated with Jules Buckley in arranging it for the Metropole Orkest, whilst Malika wrote the lyrics in her native Creole language. In this feature, we get an insight into the themes and the songwriting process.

1. All The Way Home

I sang the lyrics ‘All the way home’ into my voice notes with no particular groove in mind; I just liked the words and melody together. Later I wrote a tune around it on the oud then Malika and I figured out a story angled towards leaders who don’t represent their people. It’s got a very powerful dark sound, deliberately dirty and sloppy, but with a lot of space harmonically; the composition and production is very like [the 1997 hip hop hit] ‘All About the Benjamins’ by Puff Daddy, where there’s a guitar drone and a very (tastefully) sparse use of bass. That wasn’t a connection I made consciously but once it hit me I laughed for a while.

Michael and Malika discuss the album opener 'All The Way Home'

2. Fanm (The Woman)

Malika wrote this to celebrate the power of women at this really timely moment. She’s great at writing songs about social and political issues in ways that are never preachy; this song you want to dance to. I wrote it on oud to take advantage of the percussiveness of this instrument, how funky it is and how much fun it can be to just groove on. Much of the actual percussion comes from the Turkish daf, and we added touches like shoving paper into the acoustic guitars to give them a buzzing sound like a balafon [West African xylophone]. Jamey, André, and Keita swing beautifully from start to finish, like a machine. Roosevelt takes a beautiful dobro solo at the end.

Behind the scenes of the recording process for What Heat, featuring the track Fanm (The Woman)

3. Lé An Gadé-w En Zyé (When I Look in Your Eyes)

For this I wrote a three-part harmony on oud then moved two parts over to guitars. There’s an almost Motown feeling through the verses, with a very present bassline and a lot of space for vocals. The title sounds sweet but this is not a sweet song; Malika takes a question and answer approach to this notion that you may be involved in a romantic relationship for a very long time, then one day realise that they’re not the person you thought they were.  The whole track has an unsettling feeling and we had to find a lyric to suit it.

4. Réparasyon (Reparations)

Malika wrote the lyrics and the music for this, using a folkloric rhythm from her island called gwo-ka but changing the aesthetic by adding loads of new chords. The lyrics are direct: as a descendent, a victim, of colonialism, Malika is making a case for action to be taken. For example, there’s a memorial monument in Guadeloupe that the French spent millions of dollars on by way of saying sorry, and it caused uproar on the island. So she’s singing, ‘All you have to do is/give me my money/give me my history/give me my independence/pay me now.’

Jules Buckley in conversation with Michael and Malika about writing and arranging the album What Heat

5. Bòd Lanmé Pa Lwen (The Beach is Not Far)

This track is a hopeful tune about perseverance, action, and what can happen if we continue to struggle and push forward. Malika is singing about trudging through the desert and finding an oasis (‘We walked, we suffered/But we’ve stood firm and now we’ve arrived’), which is represented musically by a transition from down tempo blues to a heavy up-tempo thing with Moroccan-style percussion; Jamey [Haddad] toured with Berber groups and he loves putting a three feel over grooves in different time signatures. Knowing that made me write it into several songs on the record. The Metropole steams through high-speed linear figures that Malika cooked up. It’s stunning to hear an orchestra with such agility and groove.

Bòd Lanmè Pa Lwen (Duo Version)

6. Don’t Do It

This song tells of a future in which a terrible leader has lost his or her position (‘We’re throwing you out in the rain/So we can wash away the dirt you left behind, Donny’). Just proposing such an alternative reality offers some hope in the face of a dark situation. It’s the idea that most of us have a voice in our heads (or voices outside) that tells us not to make bad decisions, but some of us can’t help ourselves. There’s a fusion of West African and Caribbean elements, with fat trombone riffs and blazing string lines, as well as interplay between guitarists Bob Lanzetti and Chris McQueen, who trade solos with Roosevelt Collier on dobro. Weedie Braimah stands out in this track on djembe, and brings it to a close.

7. Chambre à Échos (Echo Chamber)

This is an allegory about social media, where we only see what we want to see and never encounter difference of opinion, which tends to result in us not knowing how to deal with it when it happens (‘When we don’t have knowledge of the perspective from all sides/Division is ensured/As we walk in circles’). Malika gets to show off her beautiful ability to improvise, and the Metropole Orkest bring in that epic, cinematic quality they are so great at; it’s the moment they get to do what they’re known for.

Photo credit: York Tillyer.

8. Maison En Feu (House on Fire)

This track has a lot of drama, a two-beat blues tune but with a three-on-the-floor kind of groove that’s earthy, almost muscular. The orchestra shines on this one, moving from quick lines to lushness to Zeppelin-like grit from moment to moment. Malika has done a beautiful job with the vocals. The lyrical and visual concept for this tune was this image of a man sitting inside his burning home and not doing very much about it, the man representing a very apathetic humanity in this current moment. It became the overarching image for the album.

To extinguish this fire/We open our eyes/To face this disaster/We open a channel/Flood it with love/And never stop…

Michael and Malika talk politics, and the significance of the name Bokanté

Bokanté are on tour across the UK next week and also have a select run of dates in Sweden, Norway and Switzerland. Their album What Heat is out now on Real World Records.

Book tickets now

Featured Release

  • What Heat

    Bokanté + Metropole Orkest (Conducted by Jules Buckley)

    Released 27 September 2018

    Bokanté traces the blues from its roots in Africa and the Arab world throughout the diaspora and into a modern context. Led by Michael League (Snarky Puppy), the album features Guadeloupean vocalist Malika Tirolien and is a collaboration with the Metropole Orkest and arranger/conductor Jules Buckley.

By Michael League & Malika Tirolien

Main image photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski.

Published on Tue, 22 January 19

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