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Jazz musician Pathe Jassi is one of Detroit's best-kept secrets. Before moving to the United States three years ago, Jassi spent half of his career playing and recording alongside legendary West African singers Youssou N'Dour of Senegal and Cheikh Lo of Burkina Faso. He's known among jazz musicians for his rare ability to combine hard bebop with a polyrhythmic African sound a skill he says he learned from Detroit jazz legend Sam Sanders, who took him under his wing in Senegal.
As a teenager living in Dakar, Senegal's capital, in the early 1980s, Jassi was lucky enough to see many of Detroit's finest jazz players, including Marcus Belgrave and Teddy Harris, at a time when Pan-African sentiments among black musicians ran high. Sam Sanders, a storied Detroit jazzman, led a number of trips into Senegal with Detroit jazz artists by his side during the 1980s, and eventually settled in Dakar with his wife, Viola Vaughn, in 1988. His purpose there was to educate and introduce jazz culture to musicians throughout West Africa. Jassi says as soon as he was put into the same room as Detroit jazz masters Harold McKinney and Sanders, he knew the rest of his life would be influenced by Detroit.
"Even back in Senegal I would say to people, 'I'm a Detroiter,' long before I ever came to the U.S.," Jassi recalls. "I was learning how to play jazz the Detroit way, and I fell in love with the city years before I ever came here."
After Jassi's parents, who were originally from Guinea-Bissau, passed away in 1989 and 1991, Sanders and Vaughn informally adopted Jassi, who still calls them "my father" and "my mother." Sanders taught Jassi about the music of Donald Byrd, Roy Brooks, Alice Coltrane and a host of other Detroit jazz artists; Jassi began to study their sounds day and night. It was Sanders who first taught Jassi how to read music up until that point, the young bassist was learning how to play strictly by ear
"Sam made me practice every day and told me that I had to be the best," Jassi says. "He taught me everything that I know about bebop, and he changed my life."
Sanders died in 2000 in Senegal, at age 63. Some 2,000 people attended his funeral, and Pathe recalls that the spiritual leader who presided said Sanders had come back to his "real home" as his final resting place. (Vaughn remains in Senegal, promoting education for girls; 10000girls.org is her organization's Web site.)
When Jassi moved to Detroit three years ago, his career hardly took off as he expected. Despite having traveled the globe accompanying N'Dour and Lo, and recording 12 albums with various musicians in Africa, when he moved to Detroit he was relegated to mowing lawns and driving delivery trucks. But Jassi was not deterred. He eventually found his way into local world music ensemble Blackman and Arnold and has made a name for himself combining traditional West African rhythms with free jazz. He's now a regular in a jazz scene where his adoptive father is still remembered as one of the elders. (Jassi can be heard Thursday nights at the Buzz Bar as part of Larry Fratangelo's jam session.)
Jassi admits he sometimes gets painfully homesick and longs to be reunited with his wife (he married his childhood sweetheart) and five children, who are still in Dakar.
"It's hard being so far away from home, but I am still able to provide for my family," Jassi says. "All of my children are in private school, and my wife doesn't work. Things are not easy, but I can pay all of their bills from Detroit."
Jonathan Cunningham is a staff writer for Orlando Weekly. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.