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Jazz Professor’s African Roots Inspire Students




By Arvin Temkar, University of San Francisco


Look no further than the title of USF adjunct professor and alumnus Pascal Bokar Thiam’s latest release Guitar Balafonics for a hint to the album’s unique and creative sound.



As the jazz and blues magazine DownBeat says in its glowing review of the album, “It takes a moment for your ears to adjust and realize that it is, in fact, a guitar producing those stately notes.”


That’s because, Thiam EDD 2006, who was raised in Mali and Senegal, slightly mutes his guitar’s strings with his palm to create a marimba-like sound that emulates the West African percussion instrument the balafon.


The technique gives the American jazz standards featured on Guitar Balafonics a distinctly African vibe.


The album, which DownBeat chose as a best CD of 2015, is, in a way, a reflection of the performing art professor’s work at USF. Thiam, who earned his doctorate in education here, is the author of 2011’s “From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta: How West African Standards of Aesthetics Have Shaped the Music of the Delta Blues.”


It chronicles how West African musical aesthetic has influenced mainstream American culture — the banjo, for example, can be traced to a string instrument brought from West Africa in the Atlantic slave trade. In USF classes like Jazz Culture and Social Justice and Survey of African Music, Thiam teaches students how the blues, bluegrass, jazz, and other American music forms were born from these African roots.


“That’s why American music is so different,” he says. “American music has nothing to do with the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.”


Maggie Gehegan ’12 says Thiam’s class on African music was one of her favorite classes at USF — and it wasn’t even part of her degree.


“It opened up this whole repertoire of music I had never really explored,” says Gehegan, who earned a bachelor of science in nursing at the School of Nursing and Health Professions.


Gehegan’s fond memories of that class contributed to her decision to join a jazz ensemble taught by Thiam. There was only one hitch: She wanted to be a vocalist — but she’d never sung in public before.


Thiam, who doesn’t require auditions for the class, pushed her to practice and improve. He’s brought students to play at his Savannah Jazz Club, where some of the Bay Area’s top musicians perform. The club hosted one of Gehegan’s first live performances.


“It’s easy to perform on campus because your friends are there, but when you walk into a club and people are looking at you — there, you have to produce,” says Thiam. “In some cases they’ve paid an admission fee and they don’t know you. That’s when you realize it’s important to practice.”


Now Gehegan, a nurse living in New Orleans, is also a touring rhythm and blues singer with her first recorded EP.


“I’m playing and performing music in a city that lives and breathes music,” she says. “It’s definitely a testament to the confidence Dr. T instilled in me during my time in his classes.”


Thiam says while he doesn’t expect all of his students to become jazz musicians, he wants them to at least appreciate the art form’s powerful history.


“In order to appreciate music, you have to understand its origins,” he says. “It comes from a culture. It has a story.”


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