Connecting the cultural dots with jazz musician Pascal Bokar Thiam

Pascal Bokar Thiam.
Afro Blue Grazz Band by Pascal Bokar / Courtesy Image

Pascal Bokar Thiam thinks that there are many things listeners don’t know about the music they hear.

“A lot of people don’t realize how complex, deep, and socially and culturally interesting American music is,” he said in a recent interview.

The musician and educator seeks to change that on stage as the leader of Pascal Bokar’s Afro Blue Grazz Band and in the classroom as a lecturer in the music department at the University of San Francisco.

His performance at the JAS Cafe on Sunday at the Aspen Art Museum will combine the two elements, he said, with a presentation and discussion of the context behind the music before the first note hits at the 7 p.m. concert.

“(It) will really help people understand what’s hitting them because they’ve never heard of anything like it,” he said. “It’s different, and it’s very powerful.”

Sunday’s shows and talks are the culminating events of the JAS Café Summer Series and mark the final leg of the group’s seven-show “Jazz, Culture and Social Justice” tour across the Southwest. The tour is supported by funding from Jazz Road, a national touring and residency program through the nonprofit South Arts.

It’s also a looping moment for Thiam, who first performed with Jazz Aspen in 1997.

“It’s kind of an important milestone in the life of an artist, A, to be invited, but also to have the opportunity to talk about this important idea of ​​this real cultural connection with East Africa. West, which is found in American music,” he said. . “It’s important not just for African American kids, but it’s important for all American kids.”

Thiam has spent decades examining these cultural connections between the West African diaspora and the foundations of American popular music – namely jazz and blues – in the Mississippi Delta.

His Afro Blue Grazz Band represents a fusion of these cultural components; “Blue Grazz” is its own portmanteau of “bluegrass” and “jazz”.

“The music, the depths of that music, are reflected in the depths of the lives and experiences of those earlier populations,” he said.

He cites the banjo as an example: although many may associate it with the music of Nashville, the instrument has much deeper roots in West Africa. American folk dance also has its ties to West Africa, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries, which is why Thiam also plans to have dancers join the group on Sunday night.

“If you look at the West African aesthetic, they codified a new language for an American culture,” Thiam said. “It’s going to give it a different identity, in terms of the aesthetics of music, but also the aesthetics of movement.”

It’s a visual cue that speaks to the far-reaching cultural influences across all kinds of mediums during the Harlem Renaissance era: music and dance, yes, but also literature and the visual arts, he said. .

There was a “complete shift” at the start of the 20th century, he said, in which it was not America that looked to Europe for aesthetic inspiration, but rather the reverse; much of the United States’ status as a “cultural superpower” stems from the American South, he said.

These ideas are not new to Thiam. He was also thinking about it more than 20 years ago when he first performed in Aspen.

“What I do today grew out of beliefs I had in 1997,” he said. But there’s also a lot more depth and breadth to that knowledge base now — knowledge he’ll share with audiences in the homes they make their own connections on Sunday.

“Education is in the quest. … That’s how you connect those dots, and that’s the journey, it’s really the journey,” he said. “That’s why most of us in education are constant learners – we’re constantly searching, we’re constantly searching, we’re constantly evaluating or re-evaluating.”