As the cultural capital of Maine, it’s nature that Portland has attracted artists from all over the world, as immigration has brought diversity to one of the most homogenous of the United States. On a given weekend, you’ll find “world music” like the Burundian drummers Batimbo United or Middle Eastern string band Okbari, giving locals the sounds of geographies far afield.
But Bondeko, a three-piece featuring accordion, guitar, and percussion, is a band with different ambitions, which reflect Portland’s evolution as a home to an increasing population of immigrants interested in creating wholly new artforms here in their new home.
In a cloistered Albania, Ylli Brekofca played nothing but folk music for 50 years before moving to the U.S. in 2016. His background is a combo package of gypsy ballads, Arabic time signatures, even Austrian waltzes. Orson Horchler was raised from the age of three on French pop balladry, living with his mother just outside of Paris, with an infusion of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Willie Nelson sent along on cassette tape from his father in the United States, where Horchler returned at the age of 18.
Combine that with the sophisticated rhythms of African percussion played (until recently) by Congolese drummer Jarin Tchikaya — “Bondeko” is taken from Lingala, the language of the Congo — and now his replacement, Namory Keita, a Guinean drummer, and you get something akin to the “fusion” idea that has permeated American kitchens for some time. It’s not “world music,” as there’s no place in the world but here where you can hear music like it. But neither is it culturally American, in that it doesn’t fit into any of the genres you might pick from on your standard Spotify playlist search.
“We have really intense moments of not understanding each other,” says Horchler, “and it represents how we create music because, with most people, if you’re punk, you play with punks; if you’re hip hop you play the hip hop open mic. We don’t have a home venue or a genre. We’ll be trying to work on a song and we only share 15 words of common language.”
When the band is truly working, he says, “There’s got to be some kind of forcing ourselves to be uncomfortable.” Being uncomfortable is sort of core to the immigrant experience.
Bondeko is a bit like New York City, where Horchler says he feels most comfortable of any place in the world. “In New York City,” he says, “everybody is in culture shock all the time, and you share that. At some point, I realized that in order for everybody in the band to be on equal ground, we have to all be in culture shock. … If we have even one American in the band, that person will just ultimately dictate the culture. They’re living in the place where their culture is dominant. The thing that we create with the band is a ‘safe space,’ as Americans call it, and the only thing we have in common is that we’re not comfortable.”
Sometimes that might mean Bondeko doesn’t fit neatly into a category that people can understand, but that hasn’t hurt their bookings.
“We’re intercultural,” Horchler says, and that resonates with people from all walks of life. They’re not just bringing the music of another culture to Portland, they’re making entirely new music by combining the different cultural music that each member of the band brings to the songwriting.
Horchler loves the boom-chick of the cowboy music he got from America, but combines that with the crooning romanticism of traditional French pop, like Édith Piaf and Yves Montand. “American music is very monotone,” he says. “Some emotions just don’t show up much — maybe excepting Rage Against the Machine or Public Enemy — and the volume is always the same. Whereas in French songwriting, there are much more changes of volume and emotion.”
Meanwhile, Brekofca provides a unique sense of rhythm and melody to Horchler’s pieces. “He calls some of the stuff we do ‘metal,’” laughs Horchler, referring to the number and variety of chord changes, “but he modulates the notes at the ends of lines, uses major chords in a minor song, or he’ll suggest something totally different with a melody and I’ll try it as a challenge and then all of a sudden it fits and I change it.”
“It must seem so foreign,” says Horchler, “just like every aspect of living here – he’s 67 years old – and that’s why he’s having a really hard time with the language and with the music it’s very similar. “It takes a long time to learn my songs because it’s so different for him. But I always present them in a way so that he can let me know how different it is, and what he hears, and then I can pick something up from him.”
A Frenchman picking up tips on music from an Albanian, overlaid on a bed of African rhythms. It’s something only a collection of immigrants could create. It may make you uncomfortable at times, but that’s the point.