Strange Circles is the debut offering from Bokanté, an ensemble put together by Snarky Puppy's Michael League. The group's name translates from Creole to “exchange” in English and the eight musicians from four continents have developed a cohesive, layered multicultural sound that serves as a foundation for Malika Tirolien's rich vocals sung in Creole and French. While in Canada, League heard the voice of Tirolien, who hails from Guadeloupe and now lives in Toronto. The meeting inspired the creation of Bokanté, with League and Tirolien collaborating on the music and Tirolien handling the lyrics. They are joined by fellow Snarky Puppy guitarists Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti, percussionists Jamey Haddad, André Ferrari, and Keita Ogawa, as well as Roosevelt Collier on pedal and lap steel guitars.
The album opens with “Jou Ké Ouvè.” Here the vibrant vocals of Tirolien twist and turn with overdubbed harmonies underneath a wall of guitars. The driving percussion propels the group while Tirolien sings about the importance of loving one another as Collier's lap steel cuts to the top of this bluesy stomp.
“Nou Tout Sé Yonn” picks up the pace on a gritty track about the importance of remembering that only unity can bring about peace. The vivid sound of Bokanté shines on this uptempo groove; part Delta blues with a funky heartbeat and folkloric undertones with stacks of guitar harmonies among a rich bevy of percussion.
The spirited “O La” is one of the standouts on Strange Circles. Tirolien delivers passionate vocals warning about the consequences of malicious intent. The band bops together seamlessly and pushes hard towards the end of the song where Tirolien really shines, harmonizing with a beautiful pedal steel solo. The atmosphere created by the vocal overdubs and the guitars give a feeling of space which is heard throughout the record.
This natural flow continues on “Zyé Ouvè, Zyé Fèmé,” a song which balances the vast feeling of the desert with the stillness of the bayou. The Hammertone, baritone, electric, and lap steel guitars joining together to create a grainy, dense texture which floats towards the finish.
The funky undercurrent returns on “Roudesann,” where Tirolien's playful, silky vocals add an undeniable richness to the song. A hearty mix of percussion opens the mellow “Limyè,” which again creates a feeling of openness enhanced by Tirolien's smooth overdubbed harmonies.
“An Ni Chans” is perhaps the most uptempo track on the record. The percussive foundation concocts an irresistible groove that is full of verve which storms along until a surprising dub slows things down towards the end.
The relaxed vibe leads to “Apathie Mortelle,” a song about the lethal aspects of apathy. The arrangement wisely uses reverb on vocals and guitars with a slight dub twist to simulate a seemingly infinite space.
The guitars rock out on “Vayan,” a slice of fusion that pays homage to the warriors on the battlefield. “Héritier” closes the record with a tender piece written by Tirolien. Her beautiful voice takes center stage and blends well with the acoustic guitar and understated percussion, which drifts off into the distance at the end.
Strange Circles is a remarkable debut for an ensemble of musicians who came together for this project. The combination of League's musical ideas and Tirolien's lyrical gift yields a rewarding album that is driven by the depth of the guitars and percussion. The conveyance of space felt throughout the album is testament to the way the group arranged and mixed the tracks. The cover art features a photo of the NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia taken by Christoph Schröer. The vast landscape in the image fits the music perfectly on this dynamic release. - Alex Brown