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From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta

Posted by >>>>> on August 9, 2011

Q & A with PASCAL BOKAR THIAM, ED.D.,
Author of From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta: How West African Standards of Aesthetics Shaped the Music of the Delta Blues

Q. In From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta you offer a comprehensive account of how the Blues and Jazz were shaped by West African musical traditions. Why did you feel the need to write this history?

A. I saw the need to write this section of our American history because I had long felt that academia was suffering from a bout of amnesia when it came to educating our nation about the contributions of people of African descent and how they shaped our cultural identity, especially our music. This can be seen in the way we clap, our sense of swing, our sense of harmony and melody through the Blues, the banjo we play, Gospel, Jazz, Country, Rock’n Roll, Bebop etc.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself. You have a shared Senegalese and French heritage and your childhood was split between Africa and Europe. How did this affect you as a musician and scholar?

A. This shared heritage gave me a unique window into racial issues in academia and how this, in turn, shapes society. It also allowed me to act as an observer and deepened my understanding of the impact of racial colonial oppression on academic knowledge and its dissemination, as well as the impact of colonialism on how we teach and think about music. In the United Sates today, we have more conservatories of European music than schools of America’s own art form, Jazz. Are Mozart and Beethoven more important to the fabric of America’s education quilt than Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington?

Q. You call the Niger River the “West African cultural highway of central significance.” Why?

A. It is along the rivers that the process of cross-cultural fertilization takes place. In West Africa, the Niger River was the vehicle. In the United States it was the Mississippi-Missouri. These mighty rivers connect people economically therefore culturally, thus musically.

Q. You were raised in Mail, Senegal and France, but you’ve made your home in the U.S. for almost three decades. You say that you were surprised to find that African-Americans clapped on the second and fourth beat when keeping time with the pulse of the music, and that people often find themselves clapping on the “wrong beat.” Why is that?

A. I have spent 27 years in the U.S. as a Jazz musician and that’s a long time. I was always surprised that African Americans and the nation as a whole clapped on beats 2 and 4. I noticed early that European American communities were having a harder time with that concept. The reason has to do with centuries of West African musical traditions.

Q. In From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta you discuss the oral tradition of West African communities and how it served as a primary vehicle to transmit history and other knowledge. How has this practice informed Jazz and the Blues?

A. Musicians are the teachers in African societies and the concepts of oral tradition and memorization simply transferred over when Africans came to the new world. The importance of memorization in the African American community is paramount. Africans and people of African descent deeply believe that you only know what you have learned by heart, thus the piece of paper becomes an obstacle to human internal concentration and freedom of expression. When I was with Dizzy Gillespie he would say “ It’s good to know how to read but I don’t want you getting on stage with that piece of paper because if you need to read this that means that you don’t know what you are doing up there and if you don’t know what you are doing up there you’ve got no business being on stage” –pure implementation of the oral tradition.

Q. Can you describe some of the African stringed instruments you discuss in the book and explain their significance to the guitar, banjo, and other instruments that Americans are more familiar with?

A. The most important instrument which defines the textural identity of early American music is the banjo. The banjo comes from the people of West Africa, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Guinea, Niger etc. It is called Ngoni (Mali), Xaalam (Senegal), Akounting (Gambia) etc. Same instrument, same concept, pretty much same tuning, same songs although there is variety in the similarities. These instruments and their songs provided the foundation for the colors of the music that will evolve from blue notes to be named Blues, the call and response mechanisms, the syncopation patterns, the sense of “swing,” the harmonic landscape of the magical sharp nine concept that you find all over West African music and will give America’s music its unique identity.

Q. The Atlantic Slave Trade resulted in millions of Africans being forcibly brought to the Americas. Tell us about how this experience changed their musical traditions and how they re-conceptualized the music that they found in the U.S.

A. Africans are the genetic parents of humanity as a whole. Africans were the first on the planet therefore Africans have an incredible ability to survive, which is why they were able to survive the Atlantic Slave Trade and re-create a cultural community that would give this nation its only indigenous art form: Jazz. People of African descent simply apply their standards of aesthetics to every form that comes their way. That’s why we see such a strong African identity in the music of America.

What is mind-boggling is that an entire aesthetic philosophy survived the Middle Passage and its legacy endures regardless of the economic deprivation in which the community finds itself in North America today. The rhythmic, oral delivery concepts of West Africa existed well before anyone ever imagined a the Blues, Jazz, or—most recently—Hip-Hop. It also can be found in the sermon delivery of the pastors of the African American Baptist Church in the South.

Q. If you had to choose some specific songs Jazz and Blues songs that you think best illustrate the West African influence what would they be?

A. You can find sonic and rhythmic similarities in the early Blues, I am thinking conceptually about the music of Son House or Bukka White, and you can hear the roots of these early American musics in the traditional songs of West Africa when you listen to the music of Ali Farka Toure or Bassekou Kouyate. Bassekou playing Ngoni Fola or Segu Blue are perfect examples. John Lee Hooker playing Boom Boom or Hobo Blues, or Ali Farka Toure playing Heygana (the River) or Ai Du.

ABOUT PASCAL BOKAR THIAM, ED.D.
Pascal Bokar Thiam is a scholar, musician and writer of mixed Senegalese and French heritage who grew up in Mali, Senegal and France. He is on the faculty of the University of San Francisco and the French American International School, where he teaches Jazz and world music courses. His CD, Savanna Jazz Club, (named after a nightclub he owns in San Francisco’s Mission District) which combines the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with Senegalese
rhythms was a national best seller.

Author Web site: www.pascalbokarthiam.com
Hear Thiam’s Music: www.myspace.com/pascalbokar/albums/savanna-jazz-club-394071

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