Alumni Profile: Pascal Bokar '85

Lesley Mahoney
February 28, 2011
Musician, author, and entrepreneur Pascal Bokar sees his Berklee education as a strong foundation for the work he does today.
Pascal Bokar at the Sun Street Festival in Hamamatsu, Japan.
Performing in Japan, Pascal Bokar with Japanese musicians Jim Butler on alto saxophone and Babou Sagna and Mbor Faye on African percussion.
Photo courtesy of Pascal Bokar
Photo courtesy of Pascal Bokar
Photo courtesy of Pascal Bokar

More than 30 years ago, Pascal Bokar saw master saxophone player Stan Getz backed by Berklee alumni Andy LaVerne and Chuck Loeb '76, as well as by young players Victor Jones and Brian Bromberg, at the Club Med Jazz Festival that stretched over six months in Dakar, Senegal. "All of us looked at these kids who were playing with this legend and said, 'What about us?'"

Already a budding guitarist playing in a local band at the time, Bokar—who was born in France and grew up in Mali and Senegal—was inspired and decided he wanted to get serious about becoming a jazz musician. A stint at the Conservatory of Nice in 1980 didn't satiate him, and he knew Berklee could take him to the next level of musicianship. Bokar arrived in Boston in 1983 with nothing more than two guitars and a suitcase. "Something about this art form is so profoundly inspiring that it's worth putting a lot of life comfort aside," he says.

Now Bokar is lending his expertise to the next generation of musicians as a faculty member at the University of San Francisco and president/owner of San Francisco's Savanna Jazz Club, also the namesake of his most recent album. Much the same way that fellow alumnus Lionel Loueke '01 infuses his guitar playing with his West African heritage, Bokar is dedicated to spreading the message of the African roots of music through all his endeavors, from performing with his band to teaching to writing. His new book (as Pascal Bokar Thiam) is From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta: How West African Standards of Aesthetics Shaped the Music of the Delta Blues (Cognella, 2010).

The following is an edited and condensed version of a conversation with Bokar.

What are the parallels you see between jazz and African music?

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the slave trade brought millions and millions of Africans. Of course they came with their music. . . . It's not an accident that the blues sound like the music of Timbuktu. It's not an accident that blues tones and tonalities are omnipresent and represent a cornerstone that later evolved to blues, gospel, and other various evolutions.

Clearly jazz is an American music. It was made and evolved here. . . . But the aesthetics that made that possible and the reason why jazz sounds so different is because it's an extension of parts of Africa. It infuses with the standards of aesthetics of West Africa. That is why we swing in America, why we improvise, why we have all these textures in the music.

How did Berklee help you realize your dream of becoming a professional jazz musician?

At Berklee it was amazing to see the level of dedication of students and faculty around me. I had a fabulous guitar teacher, [the late] Bill Leavitt. He was very intrigued by the fact I came from Africa to learn this music. He was a guitar master but more importantly he had the gift that great musicians have. Bill would play a song, tell a story about the song, play chords, and tell the story behind the chords. That storytelling ability is central to great teaching and central to a great understanding of this music. Similarly, the way Africans express themselves is through teaching the origin of old tradition. The process of improvisation, especially jazz, is so rooted in the African tradition of storytelling. By the time we were done playing the song, not only did we know the lyrics, but we knew the story of the song and we came out of class with a whole new idea not only about the song and how to play it but also about how to express it.

I do what I do today because of the foundation Berklee provided for me in terms of my practice regimen and my outlook on how this music developed and evolved. My education at Berklee went well beyond the classroom. . . . [Faculty member] Billy Pierce, a sax player [and now Woodwind Department chair], would tell us stories in the lobby about Art Blakey and the masters he worked with. All of this informs your opinion of the commitment of these artists.

I opened a jazz club. No one wants to open a jazz club because it's not a money-making venture. . . . Berklee gave me the tools and the spirit to understand this is a hard journey and this is a worthwhile journey. That commitment to a higher standard of aesthetics is the reason why I'm very interested in connecting this music that we call jazz with the African continent.

How does your own music connect to the music of Africa?

It's something that's ancestral to me. It's in my DNA. When I met Dizzy, he had been to Africa, to Senegal. He said, "You have to find a way to bring percussion back into American culture. . . . When Africans came to this country they took the drum away from them." Later on, I understood the depth of that statement. I've been on that journey ever since. I am not a percussionist, but I know the beats. When you grow up in Africa, everybody is schooled in drumming because it is everywhere. We dance to the beats, we eat to the beats, we sleep through the beats. They are an integral part of the fabric of our society. It's part of my language, part of my vocabulary.

For example, "Donna Lee," a Charlie Parker composition, is a typical bebop tune for which I use a percussive approach to my guitar. We play "Donna Lee" as is and improvise in our terms on the music. I reframed it into a more West African idea. The style of guitar I created is called "balafonics" because the way I mute the guitar is reminiscent of the balafon, an ancestral West African instrument and the ancestor of the xylophone.