Pascal Bokar, who grew up in Mali and Senegal before moving to San Francisco, personally has experienced the similarities between West African and American music. And in his career as a guitarist, composer, club owner and music professor at University of San Francisco, he fuses American jazz with its origins by adding African rhythms to standards from the 1940s and ’50s.
“In order to understand how American music was formed, you have to understand the demographics,” says Bokar, who hosts and performs in special Valentine’s Day and Black History Month events in February at Savanna Jazz, his club in the Mission.
Bokar, who has traced the roots of American popular music to influences from West Africans brought over during the slave trade, says, “The oldest American instrument is from Mali; it’s the banjo. This is a part of American history that people don’t like to talk about, but music doesn’t lie.”
On Friday and Saturday night, Bokar’s AfroJazz Ensemble appears in concert, along with an African dance revue; a meal of West African food prepared by “Iron Chef” competitor Pierre Thiam, a native of Senegal, accompanies the show.
“The culture is articulated around food,” Bokar says. “The reason why the food from the South is so specific is because it came from Africa.”
Rice, black eyed peas, sweet potatoes and okra would not exist in America if it were not for West African slaves, says Bokar, who believes food and music go hand in hand in how African Americans influence American culture.
Bokar’s ensemble of musicians playing African and American instruments performs songs in the tradition of American popular music, from folk tunes such as “Camptown Races” through the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll.
He also adds a West African twist to mid-century American songs, hoping to recapture what made jazz popular before it became primarily instrumental music with a limited audience.
“It’s very important to African tradition to have actual songs,” Bokar says. “Jazz used to be dance music. Then it became so intellectualized, and the general public couldn’t hang. They moved on to other types of music that they could understand.”
IF YOU GO
Savanna Jazz Salute to Black History Month
Where: Savanna Jazz, 2937 Mission St., S.F.
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Tickets: $15 (show only) $49.95 (dinner and show)
Contact: (415) 624-4549, www.savannajazz.com
Note: Programming continues with performances by keyboard master Doug Carn at 7 p.m. Feb. 22-23; tickets are $15.