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Connecting cultural dots with jazz musician Pascal Bokar Thiam

Pascal Bokar’s Afro Blue Grazz Band to perform two JAS Cafe shows

Pascal Bokar Thiam.
Pascal Bokar's Afro Blue Grazz Band/Courtesy image

Pascal Bokar Thiam believes there’s a lot listeners don’t know about the music they hear.

“A lot of people don’t know how intricate, how deep, how profoundly interesting American music is from a social cultural perspective,” he said in a recent interview.

The musician and educator is looking 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 JAS Cafe performance on Sunday at the Aspen Art Museum will combine both elements, he said, with a presentation and discussion on 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 something like this,” he said. “This is different, and it’s very powerful.”


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Sunday’s shows and discussion are the culminating events of the summer-long JAS Cafe series and mark the final stop of the band’s seven-show “Jazz, Culture and Social Justice” tour through 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 full-circle moment for Thiam, who first performed with Jazz Aspen in 1997.

“It’s an important sort of milestone in the life of an artist, A, to be invited, but also having the opportunity to talk about this important idea of this real cultural connection to West Africa, that we find in American music,” he said. “That’s important not just to African American kids, but that’s important to all American kids.”

IF YOU GO…

What: Pascal Bokar’s Afro Blue Grazz Band

When: Two shows on Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. Tickets to the earlier show include admission to a Listen Up! artist interview at 6:15 p.m.

Where: JAS Cafe at the Aspen Art Museum

More info: jazzaspensnowmass.org

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

His Afro Blue Grazz Band represents an amalgamation of those cultural components; “Blue Grazz” is his own portmanteau of “bluegrass” and “jazz.”

“The music, the depths of this music, is reflected by the depths of the life and the experiences of these prior populations,” he said.

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

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

It’s a visual cue that speaks to the sweeping cultural influences on all sorts of mediums around the time of the Harlem Renaissance: music and dance, yes, but also literature and visual arts, he said.

There was a “complete shift” at the beginning of the 20th century, he said, in which it wasn’t America looking to Europe for aesthetic inspiration but rather the other way around; much of the United States’ status as a “cultural superpower” stems from the American south, he said.

These ideas aren’t new ones for Thiam. He was thinking about them more than 20 years ago when he first performed in Aspen, too.

“What I’m doing today is born out of the convictions that I had in 1997,” he said. But there’s also a lot more depth and breadth to that base of knowledge now — knowledge he’ll share with audiences in homes that they draw their own connections come Sunday.

“Education is in the quest. … It’s how you’re connecting those dots, and that’s the journey, that’s really the journey,” he said. “That’s why most of us in education are constant students — we’re constantly searching, we’re constantly looking, we’re constantly assessing or reassessing.”

kwilliams@aspentimes.com


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