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by R. Asmerom

The Black soul. It’s a wonder, isn’t it? That the most oppressed people and hated people on earth can create the most powerful music and influential art in the world. It’s a paradox that is not lost on Dr. Pascal Bokar Thiam, a professor of Music and African studies at University of San Francisco, who just released the book “From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta: How West African Standards Shaped the Music of the Delta Blues.” In his insightful and rare book, the Senagelese-French historian illustratates just how under-rated African ancestry and culture is when it comes to assessing the musical history of the United States.

“What I’ve noticed in teaching jazz history courses was that there was a significant amount of academic amnesia when it came to the contribution of the populations that migrated from West Africa to the southern plantations of the United States between the 16th Century and the 19th Century,” he said.

Thiam contends that jazz is essentially a fusion of blues and gospel, a music that conveyed the sorrow and hopes of a population marginalized and dehumanized. In general, the evolution of jazz follows the theme of other popular music forms which emerged from the experience of hardship.

“In order to understand the way creativity happens you have to understand what is called rhythmic creative intuition,” said Thiam. “And that’s a mechanism by which oppressed communities, in this case the African American community, have to dig deep inside their collective soul to project onto the arts something that is fundamental to their identity in order to survive the social political conditions in which they are living.”

The saxophone, the main symbolic instrument of jazz, may have been created in Europe, but the style and form of jazz was molded by the Black experience and didn’t “crystallize” until the early 20th century. One of the main points that Thiam makes is that New Orleans was not the birthplace of jazz, as the New Orleans tourist board may want you to believe. Instead, the birthplace of jazz is the collective of African-American communities where slaves and their descendants were concentrated.

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