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Malika Tirolien: A jazz star is born... after quitting seven bands

The Montreal singer-songwriter chronicles her rise from the ashes of burnout to a solo album and the international stage.
Montreal jazz singer Malika Tirolien in Guadeloupe, France.

Malika Tirolien is a Montreal based singer-songwriter. She is best known for her performance with jazz and funk collective Snarky Puppy on their Grammy-winning album Family Dinner Volume 1. Her ongoing collaboration with Snarky Puppy's leader, Michael League, has blossomed into a whole new project, Bonkanté. But her future as a jazz singer wasn't always assured. 

​When Tirolien graduated from the Université de Montréal in 2005, she was exhausted. It had been a huge course load, and the final exams were stressful and intense. Meanwhile, she had been singing with seven bands — that's right, seven. Tirolien was burnt out. She quit all the groups she was singing in and took off to France for a break.

But on her return to Montreal in the fall, she realized the error of her drastic choice —  there was nothing waiting for her. No classes, no exams and no bands. Her friends were busy, while she was floundering with too much time on her hands, trying to start her career as a professional singer. She sank into a deep depression and her love of music suffered. 

It was then that Tirolien came across the Kalmunity Vibe Collective, Canada's largest and longest running urban music improv collective. 

"I was blown away," says Tirolien. "This show gave me so much life. All my passion for music came back and and I got out of my depression. Right away I joined the collective."

Through the collective, Tirolien formed another group, Groundfood. It was to be the first step on a musical journey that would lead her to international renown.

Groundfood, the Montreal band featuring Malika Tirolien

The stage gets bigger

Tirolien first saw jazz ensemble Snarky Puppy when they performed in Montreal in 2010. She was an instant fan. So when her band, Groundfood, was invited to open for them, she was overjoyed. But she was even happier when after the show, group leader Michael League approached her. "He was like, 'Wow, I really like your voice!", and 'Would you be open if I called you some time to come and play with us in New York?'," relates Tirolien. "And I was like, 'Oh my god, that it would be amazing,' but I didn't think he would actually do it."

Malika Tirolien has won over audiences with her jazz and Caribbean influences

But I few months later, League did call. And Tirolien was able to realize a long standing dream: to perform in New York.

"So there I was at Rockwood Music Hall. I was still like, 'Is it for real? Is it happening?'," she recalls. 

The singer says that while on stage, she worked hard to stay focused.

"And it's only after it was done that I actually realized that I was playing in New York. I was playing my songs with a bad-ass band in New York.  And yeah, it was a really cool moment!"

But the adventure didn't end there. After returning to Montreal, she got a call from Michael League. He was inviting her to record two of her songs with Snarky Puppy for their new album, Family Dinner, Volume 1. The album was to be a collaboration with several of their favourite singers. Tirolien was among them.

"It was really a dream come true, you know, because I respected these musicians so much," says Tirolien.

Recording with the group, she was finally able to hear her song "I'm Not the One" as she had imagined it in her head: with three backup vocalists, a brass section, keyboard, guitar, drums and bass.

Malika Tirolien in rehearsal with Snarky Puppy for the recording of Family Dinner, Volume 1

"To see it coming together in real life is something I will never forget," says Tirolien.

After Family Dinner, Volume 1 came out, it won a Grammy. Shortly afterwards, Tirolien released her first solo album, Sur le voie ensoleilée.

BOKANTÉ, Malika Tirolien’s new band with Snarky Puppy’s leader Michael League, Paul Simon's percussion player Jamey Haddad, and other Snarky Puppy members and musicians from the U.S., Sweden and Japan.
Tirolien and the members of Snarky Puppy stayed in touch, and the singer toured internationally with the group.  Finally, two years ago, Michael League approached Tirolien to collaborate with him on a new project: a new group, with Tirolien as the lead singer. Of course, she agreed. That group is called Bonkanté, which means "exchange" in Creole. In June they released their first album, Strange Circles. Tirolien describes it as a mix of Delta Blues and West African music.

It is just the latest collaboration between Malika Tirolien and Michael League. In Tirolien's words:

"Every time Michael League is somewhere, you know great things are going to happen."

About the producer

Alison Cook
Alison Cook is an award-winning radio producer and documentary maker.

For 17 years, she shaped CBC's C'est la vie, producing, writing, editing and mixing the weekly program. She is also a contributor to Ideas, winning a Gold Medal at the New York Festivals for her documentary, "A Just Life."

Alison got her start in journalism at Australian Associated Press. But an encounter on a kibbutz in Israel changed all her plans, spurring a move to Canada.

She now calls Montreal, and The Doc Project, home.