Portland construction crew, moonlighting as a multicultural band, releases debut album
The carpentry crew with the Portland-based construction company Bondeko can often be found handling tape measures, chop saws, and electric drills. But on a recent night in Portland, they picked up a different set of tools: guitar, drum, and accordion.
The band, also called Bondeko, which roughly translates to "brotherhood" in the central African language Lingala, had gathered at Mayo Street Arts to iron out the kinks in their setlist, two days before their album release show.
They begin practicing a song. First, Namory Keita, from Guinea, opened with a djembe solo.
Next, Ylli Brekofca of Albania, joined with a long drag on the accordion.
Then, Orson Horchler, who was born in the U.S. and raised in France, came in on guitar, and they put it all together into a raucous ensemble, joined by Horchler’s son Leo on the drum set.
Horchler, who’s been playing music and writing songs since childhood, has been working to build a more robust immigrant music scene in Portland.
"I was amazed that there were so many immigrant musicians around and some world class musicians. But most of them barely ever get to play," he said.
That included Brekofca, who recently came to the U.S. from Albania without an accordion, an instrument he’d grown up playing. Horchler found him one and offered him a job at his contracting business, also called Bondeko.
He then recruited Keita to the band and to the business. They’ve been playing shows, mostly small ones around Portland, ever since.
Horchler says multiculturalism is a core tenet of Bondeko’s identity, but that that comes with some linguistic challenges. Brekofca, for example, is still learning English.
"After four or five years, I'm still trying to communicate with him about what a chorus and the verse is," Horchler said.
Language barrier or not, Brekofca, or "Papa Ylli", as Keita calls him, is Bondeko’s undisputed elder statesman. He’s also the driving force behind much of the band’s music – Bondeko’s repertoire is about 70% Albanian folk songs, melodies that Brekofca has committed to memory over the decades since he first picked up an accordion at age ten.
Brekofca spoke in Albanian, as his friend Dafina Pruthi, also from Albania, interpreted.
"He says that of course with time he has forgotten a lot," Pruthi said, interpreting. "He believes that he may remember 200" Albanian folk songs.
Brekofca added that he used to know closer to 400.
He said he learned them in part because his options were limited. Growing up under Albania’s highly repressive communist dictatorship, he wasn't allowed to play foreign music.
Now, in his 70s, Brekofca said he relishes the opportunity to learn new genres, and he encourages the group to do the same.
"Come on, let's do something new, something fresh, bring new songs. I may not be able to sing them because they're in English, but I'll try to follow," Brekofca said, adding that he gets very excited about learning new styles and genres.
Some of the new styles are featured on the group’s debut EP, which they recorded in Albania last year, including a rendition of Manu Chao’s “Clandestino”, and an original song written by Horchler.
Outside of Bondeko, Keita has built a successful music career in his own right. Steeped in the traditional drumming style of the Malinke people of West Africa, he’s also performed and taught in Europe, Canada, and around the U.S., and has recorded music with a handful of other artists.
He said he loves playing in this band because each member brings a unique set of skills and knowledge.
"What I love about it is the diversity. And then how we are connecting, when we are playing, we are all connecting," Keita said.
Keita said part of the group's tight bond, whether onstage or on a jobsite, comes from the shared experience of living far from their homelands.
"We support each other because we all are living here as an immigrant," he said. "We support each other on a difficult moment, we support each other on a good moment."
For his part, Horchler said melding musical traditions from other parts of the world is a way of holding up a mirror to the changing cultural influences in greater Portland.
"And this is what Bondeko to me exemplifies, is like that multicultural living in southern Maine today," he said.
Horchler said his dream is that one day he, Keita, and Brekofca will be able to quit their day jobs and pursue music full time.
For now, though, they’ll be back in the neighborhood this week, not far from the concert venue, to finish remodeling a kitchen.