It’s a fresh recipe with ancient ingredients. The sweet music of the soul. It’s the sound of Bolo, who make the connections between different cultures and traditions and forge them into something new, still wearing the honor of the past, but also with the ripe taste of the future. What they’ve created shines out on their self-titled debut album. With all three members highly schooled in many styles of music, from jazz and soul to West African, North African and Indian, it’s the unique chemistry of the trio that’s set them exploring this untrodden path.
“From the time we first played together we knew we had the same approach in terms of trusting the groove,” explains Eliyahu Sills who plays upright bass, and Middle Eastern and Indian flutes. “We don’t feel we need to get our egos involved – we take turns in the lead with the others supporting.”
It’s music that takes its ethos from jazz and funk as well as from older sounds, truly collaborative acoustic music that can spiral and swoop and sometimes just forge its way ahead.
Multi-instrumentalist Evan Fraser had already been involved in many successful global music projects before he met Sills on stage at Burning Man. Soon he was playing on the CD by Eliyahu & The Qadim Ensemble, which reached #7 on Billboard’s World Music charts. Surya Prakasha, a highly sought after drummer in the Bay Area jazz scene, was already an occasional bandmate with Sills. When they finally played all together, it was magic.
The music they made felt right, completely natural, a meeting of minds. And so Bolo was born. In the two years since then they’ve been gigging, rehearsing, and refining their sound. They’ve experimented with different styles, using Fraser’s kamele ngoni harps like a Moroccan bass gimbri, for instance, or playing the kalimba (thumb piano) with Prakasha’s drum kit or harmonium to create moods and change the flow of a piece. All they’ve learned and developed is on Bolo. It’s jazz that draws its heartbeat from the world. All three members are multi-instrumentalists (11 between them) and sing, often switching instruments in the course of a single piece to change the texture and color of the music, both in performance and on CD. Bass can give way to bansuri, drums to harmonium, from instruments to voice, delving deeper into the heart of a melody until they sound like a much larger ensemble.
“For years I went to the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco,” Fraser says. “That really shaped my understanding of music and spirituality as a tool of praise.”
And, indeed, the exploration that propelled Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” is the sensibility underneath Bolo’s sound. There’s a very spiritual side to the music, and it’s history as it has traveled around the globe. The album’s powerful opener, “Xangô,” for example, is a song to the West African Yoruba deity.
“When I sing that I’m reminded of slavery and the Middle Passage,” Prakasha says. “These prayers survived that atrocity and continued to be passed on in the oral tradition. They connect us to Spirit but also to humanity’s resilience, and we can’t forget that. For me, singing these songs was connected to learning to play drums and knowing the history of the drum. In fact, so much of the music that we play, that we grew up with, is part of this lineage.”
Connections like these are what Bolo creates. “Sunshine,” for instance, sets up a danceable groove with the West African harp taking on the role of the bass, while an Indian bamboo flute plays a soulful melody, and Prakasha sings a bhajan taught to him by his teacher, Jai Uttal. “Mahini Mei,” on the other hand, developed out of the band jamming, using instruments from West Africa and the Middle East alongside the drum kit and upright bass, with the addition of a vocal line penned by the late Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré.
“When we recorded those songs, they were first takes,” Fraser remembers. “The spontaneity there is magic. We respond to each other and the music just opens up.”
All three band members have studied and immersed themselves in the music of different regions: West Africa, North Africa, Turkey, India.
“We use instruments that are all connected to the earth in some way,” Prakasha notes. “They’re made with wood, bamboo, animal skin. My drum kit is the youngest instrument in the band. It’s a child of the modern age and I think it connects the Old World to the New.”
It’s music with substance and depth. But that’s simply Bolo living up to its name, which means “sing to the divine” or “speak your truth.”
“We’re not saying stuff we don’t mean,” Sills says. “That’s important to us. Speak less, but let each note come from the soul.”