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D.C. Native Michael League Discusses His Blues-Meets-World Music Group Bokanté

by Eric Althoff   

photo by York Tillyer

Michael League needed another outlet besides his New York-based instrumental band Snarky Puppy. While toying with some blues-inspired songs, he reached out to Malika Tirolein, the Montreal singer whose lyrics are typically sung in French and Creole. Thus was born Bokanté, an international blues ensemble League put together with Tirolein and various other colleagues from the world music scene.

Bokanté will be performing at the AMP by Strathmore in North Bethesda on Feb. 26th.  Ahead of what is sure to be a rocking good time, League, the group’s guitarist and bandleader, spoke to us via phone from his home in Spain (he grew up in the D.C. area) about how he believes the blues informs his latest group, why he left these shores, and how and where he and the band will rehearse before their upcoming tour—in support of their Grammy-nominated album What Heat—kicks off. 

Tell us about the genesis of Bokanté.

I’m always writing music (but) not necessarily for anything in particular. I had written a lot of things that didn’t fit with Snarky Puppy. So, I called a bunch of my friends who I thought would be a good fit for the music.

How would you describe Bokanté’s sound? Is it world music, per se?

I call it blues. But Malika, who writes the music with me, disagrees. I think of it as blues (because of the influence of) everywhere that the blues has been: the Middle East, Africa.  Wherever the blues has gone, that’s where Bokanté goes.

photo by Don Dixon Photography

How do you and Malika write the songs together considering that you live in Europe?

Normally I send the music to Malika and she writes the lyrics. Malika has written a few songs by herself without me. There have been a couple instances of another member of the band sending something (over) that Malika and I have finished.

It’s pretty quick actually. Normally I’ll do a demo in a couple hours, and I’ll send it to her, and she does her thing in a day. When we’re really focused, we can do three or four tunes in a week. For the second record, she came to Spain, where I live. 

Why did you leave New York for Europe?

I’d been in New York for ten years. I love New York, but I had been visiting this little village in Catalan for the last six years because a friend of mine has a home here. I wrote a Snarky Puppy record here at her request. I made friends here, and I grew to love the people here—not just in Spain but specifically in this village. I bought a house here last year. 

How is the music scene where you live?

I go to the south (of Spain) a lot. There’s a very, very strong flamenco scene there in Seville, so I take lessons from a percussionist there. 

Coming from New York, I knew that I wasn’t coming (to Spain) for the music. I get my fill of inspiration traveling. And also I have teachers in Turkey and Morocco, which are now significantly closer to me versus 14 and 18 hours from New York. 

The music isn’t in my village (so) it’s not necessarily super close to me. But it’s accessible. 

Where does the rest of the band reside?

Malika is in Montreal. (Guitarist) Bob (Lanzetti) is in Austin. (The others are in) New Orleans.  New York. Orlando. Stockholm. 

Modern technology must allow you all to “meet” up to practice though.

Before we tour, we have one rehearsal. 

Where will that be?

At Berklee College in Boston.

Given that you all live so far apart from one another, does the magic still jibe when you are all back together in the room?

Now it’s like getting on a bike, (but) the first couple of years it was harder. If we went a few months without playing, we had to play a few gigs to get back together as a group. Last week we played Abu Dhabi, and we hadn’t played for a year. Within moments it was “there.” 

We know the music and everyone on an individual level takes care of business. You never lose what you’ve gained (already]). You just have to regain it.

photo by Stella K,

What’s your choice of instrument these days?

I play a Supro baritone guitar. I (also) play this really interesting (Turkish instrument]) made by Godin, which is called an “oud.”  It’s like an electric (guitar) body but with guitar tuners and a thin body. 

What can people expect when they come to see Bokanté at the AMP by Strathmore Feb. 26th?

I think they can expect a very different sound. We have three guitars, a lap steel, three percussionists, bass, a singer who is singing in French and Creole, and the oud. It’s a very interesting combination of instruments. 

It’s also a very interesting (combination) of influences from which we come. Everything from Led Zeppelin to Turkish and West African influence. But (Bokanté is) very strongly rooted in the blues. 

It’s really all about the feeling and groove. I think the band is marrying super old ideas, which are kind of timeless, with some very strange and interesting stuff.

It’s funky and weird. But it’s a mashup of a lot of different things.

photo by Stella K,

What do you tell young musicians if they ask you for advice?

I make sure they know it’s not an easy career path—and that it requires and demands 100 percent of both your respect and your spirit. 

I had a conversation yesterday with a young musician I’m kind of mentoring. She’s very, very talented, and her parents are scared about her majoring in music without a (backup). They want her to double major. But a part of me feels that to make this thing work, you have to give everything to it. Especially now that there’s such an abundance of good musicians in the world. 

The work ethic I think is almost more important than talent. You have to stay open-minded and challenge yourself and be a student. We’re “permanent students” as musicians. 

So my advice would just be to give everything you have and be focused and work incredibly hard. And love it and enjoy every step of the process. Don’t look at it like there’s a goal. You have to enjoy every moment of practicing and learning and growing.

Will you have time to do any sightseeing when you’re in the greater D.C. area?

I grew up just outside of D.C., so I’ll probably just hang with some high school buddies.   

What’s something you absolutely have to have with you on the road?

Nail clippers. A book. And headphones. 

Are you still enjoying the expatriate life?

Compared to the New York rent I was paying, it’s already paid for itself. 

Bokanté performs at AMP by Strathmore in North Bethesda on Feb. 26 at 8 p.m.  Tickets start at $39 and are available by going to https://www.ampbystrathmore.com/live-shows/bokante.

Eric Althoff

A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.

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