Bokanté + Metropole Orkest ‘What Heat’ LP/CD/DIG (Real World) 4/5

African, French Caribbean and big band jazz and classical strings all combine on this extremely well thought out and wide-ranging musical recording that has divided critical opinion. While some music writers have praised the laudable objectives of fusing such disparate musical elements, others have found the overall sound simply too complex to digest, and possibly, too all-embracing. This writer, while initially a tad reticent to the all-encompassing percussive surroundings of the opening piece, ‘All The Way Home’, was rapidly won over to the skillfully crafted arrangements of Jules Buckley, the impressive songwriting talents of Bokanté founding member Michael League, and the general production is certainly praiseworthy. In some respects, the wall of sound brings to mind the production values of Phil Spector. Here, however, there is more of a cinematic feel, invested with a jazzy tinge thanks to the considerable efforts of New York-based collective, Snarky Puppy. One key element in the overall mix is the vocals of Guadeloupean singer, Malika Tivolien, now resident in Montreal and when those superb French Creole lyrics are sung with the female lead chorus and background harmonies in English, the combination is truly enthralling. Several of the songs, as with the album as a whole, are real growers and that is certainly the case of, ‘Fanm’, which is notable for the use of western classical strings and the North African (extend that to the Machrek, with the omnipresent Egyptian musical influence on the Maghreb) oud with catchy and soulful call and response vocals. More social and political in its commentary, ‘Réparasyons’ (‘Reparations’), opens into a strong Afro-Beat number. Slide guitar, saxophone ensemble and oud in tandem with strings all feature on the marvellous, ‘Don’t Do It’, with a memorable breakdown and repeated motif.

The Metropole Orkest are a Dutch big band that has been in existence since 1945 whereas Bokanté have been a group for barely more than a year so an unusual pairing of musical minds. The 2016 debut of Bokanté (an instrumental piece from the album, ‘Strange Circles’, earned them a Grammy) introduced the mixture of African blues and funk, with elements of 1970s psychedelic soul and what this scribe especially warmed to was the subtle incorporation of acoustic world roots instrumentation and this blends in beautifully on occasion. What comes across above all throughout this album is the cross-fertilisation of the African roots (to include the global African diaspora) of the blues with the Arabic-speaking world. It is worth noting that the Guadeloupean Creole sung here is specific to that French administered island, one of the numerous Dom-Tom, or French Overseas Territories. That said, the dialect is similar to neighbouring Martinique. This could just prove to be one of those slow burner albums that grow with repeated listens.

Tim Stenhouse