A journey through “American Trails”

Mardy Harding 

Staff Writer

Pascal Bokar Thiam, a music professor in the performing arts and social justice (PASJ) department, released a new CD this summer, blending genres and instruments rooted in his West African heritage COURTESY OF PASCAL BOKAR THIAM

A joyous spout of saxophone, the raspy scatting of USF music professor Pascal Bokar Thiam, and the electric pace of a rollicking banjo. The opening track to Thiam’s new CD “American Trails,” is a rush of soulful adrenaline. The song is a “bluegrazz” cover of pianist Otis Spann’s classic “The Blues Don’t Like Nobody,” and it is the perfect introduction to the album. 

“When you have a new sound, and our band has a new sound it’s important to have a vector for that new sound. Covers are a vector to the listeners,” Thiam said.

His band’s new sound is also their name: AfroBlueGrazz. “G-r-a-z-z, which is a combination of bluegrass and jazz. Afro because I’m from West Africa, blues because it’s the blues, and bluegrazz because we have a banjo. The banjo comes from my country, Mali. And jazz because it is the most advanced language of music improvisation,” Thiam said. 

The banjo is a key element of every song on the album and represents Thiam’s bands’ emphasis on history. “When I cover that song and I introduce African instruments, and I add the banjo to that song, it reconnects the entire African family,” he said. “The one on the continent of Africa, the one on the continent of America. So the song becomes a bridge.”

The record — containing six tracks, made with 14 band members — contains both covers and original compositions, all of which blend African instruments with contemporary elements of jazz, bluegrass, and the blues. The band includes the banjo, which was born in West Africa as the ngoni, and the balafon, which is an ancestor of the marimba (also known as the xylophone). “In the band, I have West African percussion, and then I have a full rhythm section and vocals,” Thiam said. “So I think when you listen to the music you realize that it is actually a global sound that expresses the cultural aesthetics of people of African descent. Because you can hear gospel in it, you can hear the blues in it, you can hear country music in it, you can hear rhythm and blues in it.”

Thiam was raised in Senegal and Mali. After studying in both Senegal and France, he came to the United States to play guitar at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “When I came to the U.S. I realized the level of academic amnesia that existed with respect to the contributions of the people of African descent,” he said. American histories of jazz, for example, often describe the genre as born out of New Orleans in the mid-1800s. The Oxford World Encyclopedia says that jazz “evolved in the USA in the late 19th century out of African and European folk music.” In actuality, people of West African descent were bringing the roots of jazz with them on slave ships as early as the mid-1500s, Thiam explained. 

“If you go to Scandinavia they have jazz festivals, if you go to Japan they have jazz festivals, if you go to Australia they have Jazz festivals. And the fathers of this music are all African American. And yet, in academia, the contribution of people of African descent really was just completely absent from the conversation. And that was really troublesome to me. And that was why I decided to get academic degrees,” Thiam said. He obtained his master’s degree from Cambridge College and a doctorate in education from USF in 2006.

Thiam took his degrees and wrote a book: “From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta,” which traces the path of West African aesthetics and traditions as they shaped American blues in the Mississippi Delta. “American Trails” as an album continues that story.

AfroBlueGrazz was scheduled to go on tour in Europe this past summer for their new album; however, since the album was released during the COVID-19 pandemic, Thiam has not yet performed it live. “None of the outlets are conducive to a great performance,” he said. “The music has to connect with the people. And the format of Zooms or various digital platforms, that’s not how we conceptualize that form of communication that we call music.”

The pandemic took a toll on Thiam’s music in other ways. The jazz club he owned for over 20 years, the Savanna Jazz Club of San Carlos, California, closed during the pandemic. In the past, several of Thiam’s students from USF have played at the club, such as Maggie Belle ‘12, who now leads her own seven-piece band when she isn’t working as an ICU (intensive care unit) nurse in New Orleans. 

“As a professor, what makes Dr. Thiam so unique is that he doesn’t just teach students about music, he lives and breathes it. The fact that he spends his days teaching at the university and his nights performing and running his own Jazz club is inspiring,” Belle said in an email. “My favorite song off of Dr. Thiams newest body of work is the song ‘I Can Tell.’ I don’t know many artists who can skillfully and tastefully incorporate so many different styles of music into one song, but I am not surprised Dr. T is one of them.”

Thiam called teaching music and music history a “crystallization of the commitment” it takes to pursue music as a career. “It’s all the same thing. Me playing jazz and teaching jazz,” he said. “It’s just a continuum of being an ambassador of West African aesthetics and culture.”

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