By Richard Scheinin
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Raised in Senegal and Mali, schooled in France, trained as a jazz guitarist in Boston and now a Bay Area academic and nightclub operator: That's Pascal Bokar Thiam, broker of musical theories that are more than theories, because they grow straight out of his life on three continents. When he tells you that Skip James, Charlie Patton and other legendary Delta bluesmen transmitted the specific sounds of an ancient Malian musical lineage, a lineage that lives on today, you listen -- because he literally heard those sounds in his childhood homes in Africa.
Now his observations and theories have become a book: "From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta" (Cognella, $44.95) traces the West African roots of the blues and jazz. It was among the most compelling books about music published in 2011. Its supporting arguments are academic as well as deeply personal, and Thiam -- who is 49 and lives in Sunnyvale -- enjoys boiling them down in conversation. As when he says that jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (his hero, with whom he performed years ago) and saxophonist John Coltrane played music that was "fundamentally African. You hear the depth of the emotion, the root," he says. "They never left that."
Thiam -- known simply as Pascal Bokar in the jazz world -- teaches jazz and world music at the University of San Francisco and is the owner of Savanna Jazz, a mainstay hangout in the Mission District. Probably because of its warm old-school vibe, it has landed more
than once on "best in the nation" lists of jazz clubs compiled by Downbeat magazine, the so-called jazz bible.
Savanna is an authentic jazz den, one where talking drums and a five-foot African harp hang on the wall alongside a photo of Louis Armstrong. Musicians ranging from Thiam (who's toured with drummer Roy Haynes and trumpeter Donald Byrd, legends) to guitarist Barry Finnerty (ex-Miles Davis) to drummer Donald "Duck" Bailey (Jimmy Smith's old trio mate) have graced the bandstand through the years.
It's a cultural meeting place. The meeting of cultures is what Thiam is about: the movement of African culture via the Middle Passage to African-Americans of the slavery era; the movement of African-American culture into the mainstream culture of the U.S., which he calls "the most Africanized nation in the Western Hemisphere."
His book reflects his understanding of how that came to be: "I was curious to know why African-Americans (and the country as a whole, for that matter) began clapping on beats two and four, and why we'd get dirty looks if we were caught clapping on the wrong beat," he says. "I had a desire to know why the music of our nation, with its majority population of European decent, had the musical textures, bent pitches and blue notes of Africa. "
"The journey began on the banks of the mighty Niger River," says Thiam, whose living room walls are lined with academic diplomas and old family photos. One shows him with his father, Abdou Thiam, on the Niger in Mali.
Born in Paris, where his West African dad was educated and married in the 1950s, Pascal moved as a toddler with his family -- mom Noelle is French -- to Senegal, and spent portions of his childhood in neighboring Mali. Home life resounded with the sounds of the kora (a West African harp), the balafon (an instrument similar to a marimba), the djembe (a hand drum, ubiquitous in West Africa) and the ngori (an ancient lute, related to the banjo). Often, the friends playing these instruments were members of the ancient Diabaté clan of historian-musicians, including Toumani Diabaté, who is Thiam's cousin and today is a star on the world music circuit.
Though he didn't know it at the time, Thiam was hearing sounds whose roots reached back a millennium or more: the "sharp nine" and "blue" tonalities that define the blues; the pulsing polyrhythmic motion of the djembe, which re-emerged in the swing and groove of everyone from Duke Ellington to Coltrane to James Brown.
Missing from the jazz history books -- and from most academic discussion of African-American music, Thiam says -- is a recognition of the 350-year-long transmission of these sounds during the period of the slave trade. His book counters this "cultural amnesia," as he puts it. "It's a problem for academia: If Armstrong had been white and Ellington had been white," he says, every American university would place jazz studies front and center.
Thiam grew up listening not only to traditional African music, but to his mother's Bach LPs and his father's jazz collection: recordings by Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Bud Powell, musicians Abdou Thiam had met and admired while studying in Paris, where many American jazz musicians were treated as stars.
As a youth, Pascal, who took up the guitar when he was 11 or 12 ("a good way to meet girls"), thought jazz was "long-winded" and preferred James Brown. But about 1980, Club Med staged a jazz festival in Senegal. He and his friends "saw Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, all the majors. Stan Getz. For almost a whole year, it was an amazing thing. And though we didn't have the vocabulary to access and explain it, intuitively we knew that musically Dizzy and the others were doing something African."
Smitten with the music, Thiam moved to Nice, France, and lived with his grandmother while studying in the nearby conservatory's jazz studies program. He gigged on the Cote d'Azur with Barney Wilen, a French saxophonist who had recorded with Miles Davis in the '50s, then moved to Boston to enroll at the Berklee College of Music. Classmates included saxophonist Branford Marsalis, pianist Cyrus Chestnut and other up-and-comers.
They all gigged at Wally's Cafe, a famous Boston jazz joint, where drummer Haynes walked in one day to appraise the fresh talent and offered Thiam a job in his touring band. That was in 1983. A year later, Thiam taught at Stanford's summer jazz program, where he performed with Gillespie, who called Thiam his "African son" and urged him to incorporate traditional African percussion into jazz.
Thiam took up the challenge: His jazz group, which included Senegalese percussionists, toured the United States from 1984 to 1999. Today, as a player, entrepreneur, professor and author, he continues to take up Dizzy's challenge. This self-described "son of Africa" finds that his roots have grown into the tree that he calls his life.