How Malika Tirolien Finds Solace in Jazz

At last month's Montreal International Jazzfest, the talented singer-songwriter won fans over with her blend of jazz and Caribbean influences.
August 5, 2016, 2:10pm

All photos by Sharonne Cohen

I'm standing backstage at one of the largest outdoor stages of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, looking out at a sea of people here to see singer-songwriter-pianist Malika Tirolien. As I wander into the crowd, I hear people singing her lyrics, see them dancing to the rhythm of her catchy melodies. Later in the week, I catch Tirolien at a packed-to-capacity Metropolis, performing with Montreal funk band The Brooks as part of the festival's Prince tribute. With a painted-on Prince-style stache and matching wig, she was a significant part of the celebration, covering many of The Artist's beloved hits—a night filled with genuine love and appreciation, drawing out much emotion from the artists onstage, as well as the thousands of Prince fans in the audience.

Whether it's on this big stage or an intimate club, Tirolien's powerful, commanding voice has incredible range, a warm tone, and remarkable control. The music she writes and performs blends soul, jazz, r&b, hip hop, and Caribbean flavors. She’s also in full control of how her music sounds as a producer—her original arrangement of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" captures that "something evil lurking in the dark." Born on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, Tirolien grew up in a creative family, exposed to the arts from a young age; her grandfather, Guy Tirolien, was a poet, her grandmother a gifted pianist, and her father a self-taught multi-instrumentalist. Choosing an artistic path was a natural evolution, and because she always found music to have a liberating and healing effect, she became passionate about singing. "Whenever I felt pain, singing soothed me and took the pain away," she has said. "It became a kind of therapy for me, and I understood it could do the same for others, too."

In late 2001, Tirolien moved to Canada to study after vacationing in Montreal with her family, and she liked what she saw. It was summertime, the jazz festival was on, and "the city was a perfect in-between mix of French and North American culture," she remembers. Graduating from the Université de Montréal with a B.A. in jazz interpretation, Tirolien became an integral part of the Montreal music scene. In addition to leading her own band, she's a core member of the Kalmunity Vibe Collective (a grassroots collective of musicians, vocalists, dancers, DJs etc. running weekly improv events), the Kalmunity Jazz Collective, and Groundfood (a Montreal-based sextet fusing soul and hip hop). Catching the attention of Michael League of the infectious Brooklyn-based jazz-funk band Snarky Puppy, Tirolien was invited to perform her song "I'm Not The One" on the band’s album Family Dinner. It would later win a Grammy.

Skirting genre boundaries, Tirolien released her first solo recording, Sur La Voie Ensoleillée (On the High Road) in 2014. The album reflects her diverse musical influences, including her native Caribbean rhythms, and the unique flavor of Montreal hip-hop. Her voice is compelling throughout, lyrics reflecting optimism and open-mindedness, and drawing from her life experience. "I love speaking about positive things," she tells me during our phone interview, while on tour. "There's a lot of negative stuff out there…When I want to address difficult issues, I like approaching them in a positive way. I'm getting into interesting subjects in my songwriting, but trying to be a little light. The world is so messed up, and there are so many important, heavy things we need to address, but there is so much that is positive, too." Some lyrics are simply about finding happiness, like "Sew" (“It's you,” she sings); others remind us to remember our roots ("Racines") and rise up ("Revolution").

"There are so many influences in my music," Tirolien says when I ask about the artists who have impacted her most. "I'm a Michael Jackson fan, I love [jazz vocalists] Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, I listen to Lauryn Hill, and I also love hip hop (Busta Rhymes) and rock (Nirvana)." Jazz came into her life during her studies. "When I was in Guadeloupe and got interested in studying music, what I really wanted to study was soul, r&b, hip hop. But unfortunately there are no programs like that in Canada; it was either jazz or classical. And because r&b and soul come from jazz, I said OK, let's go to the roots. As I began studying it, I fell in love with the harmonies, the rich chords. At the same time, I love r&b and soul, and I'm also getting back into the rhythms of my homeland to create my own style."

Tirolien says that playing one of the jazz festival's biggest stages was a big deal to her. "I'm really proud that the band is growing. Last year we had a smaller stage. It's an honor that we're being offered bigger opportunities to share our music." And what's next? Tirolien is heading out on tour with her band in the fall. She's also working on her second solo album, and has recorded a project with a new group called Bokanté (“Exchange” in Creole), with band members from different countries like the U.S., Japan, and Lebanon "coming together, bringing different sounds."

Sharonne Cohen is a writer based in Montreal. Read more of her work here.