Out of Africa

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An interview with Benin-born musician and PSU graduate student Parfait Bassale
Acoustic storytelling: Parfait Bassale, left, performs at Northwest Portland’s Someday Lounge, accompanied by Amor on Cajon.Drew Martig / Vanguard Staff
Acoustic storytelling: Parfait Bassale, left, performs at Northwest Portland’s Someday Lounge, accompanied by Amor on Cajon.

The story behind many Portland bands is simple: Bored people get together and play music with other bored people.

In the case of Benin-born, Senegal-raised Parfait Bassale, however, the story is part of his music, and it is nothing short of breathtaking.

Parfait’s shows are captivating and highly engaging. Until his recent show at Someday Lounge, most of his performances transpired on small stages, where he and his audience would lock onto one another. Consisting of Parfait on vocals and guitar, and another musician named Amor on Cajón, Parfait’s stage real estate is minimal, but his emotion and message could fill the Rose Garden.

The Vanguard recently caught up with Parfait and asked him a few questions about life, love, family and Africa.

Parfait’s warm glow could illuminate an entire room, and his speech patterns command attention. He’s a soft-spoken man of average stature, but when he speaks, your attention is not going anywhere. It is perhaps this effortlessly charming quality that makes Parfait such a terrific performer on top of being a musician.

The Portland State graduate student hails from Benin, a small country in western Africa, adjacent to Nigeria and Togo, an equally sliver-like country. Parfait jokingly refers to Benin as “the ice cream cone,” because of its shape.

When he was two years old, Parfait left Benin with his family and eventually relocated to Senegal, another French-speaking African nation. He stayed there until he graduated high school, then left Senegal for Portland, following his older brother here.

“Moving to Portland was really providential. My older brother was the pioneer. He didn’t want to go to France. A peer of his has an uncle in Portland who is an artist, a sculptor,” Parfait said. “In Africa, if you have a friend somewhere, it’s like family.”

Making this transition wasn’t the easiest thing to do. A notable hindrance was Portland’s weather.

“It was a challenge. If I had known about the weather, I probably wouldn’t have come,” Parfait laughed. “I come from a tropical region, where it’s beautiful year round. I showed up in October, and I realized my brother had told me everything about Portland except the weather! Coming from Africa, we don’t talk about the weather. It’s not a conversation topic; it’s always nice!”

Integrating into Western society was the crux of his difficulties, but his conventional wisdom saw him through it.

“There is a saying in Africa: ‘When you put a piece of dry wood in a river, it will never become a crocodile; it will be a wet piece of wood.’ You will never become ‘like them,’ but you will be altered,” Parfait said. “I’m not the same person. My views have changed, and that influences my music as well.

“It alters the way you’re able to empathize with people, and it has really influenced me,” he continued. “It was easier to have a certain picture of the U.S. back in the day, but then you come, and you’re part of the West for a while, you’re part of this family. You’re able to see the shortcomings of home, and it allows you to see people and accept them for their strengths and weaknesses. It has changed the way I relate to people.”

Parfait’s love for music didn’t thrill his parents.

“[Their approval] has been an evolution. Initially it was hard because all my family members are academics. Music wasn’t an option,” he said. “It was hard for them to accept it, but a lot of it fueled my material. They just had my best interests in mind.”

Eventually, Parfait’s persistence won them over.

“They were here last summer for my wedding. It was a groundbreaking thing. It was their first time hearing me play. There were cheers all over. My parents loved it, respected it,” he said. “In Africa, when you win someone’s approval, they say, ‘You have my blessing.’ I finally got it.”

Growing up in Senegal, Parfait listened to many Senegalese and French hip-hop groups, which helped shaped him artistically. When he moved to the United States, however, Parfait decided that he needed to learn an instrument. He chose guitar, which marries well with African storytelling. But what exactly is “African storytelling?”

“The key thing is that Africa has a very oral tradition,” Parfait said. “The way we passed knowledge was by sitting around the oldest tree in the village. We would sit and tell stories—stories with wisdom. Eventually the stories were accompanied by a drummer.

“Over the years in certain tribes, you have a specific lineage that is responsible for the storytelling, so you would add singing, and you have this whole genre of building stories around songs. It’s a big tradition of passing on wisdom, knowledge and eventually songs to the next generation.”

Parfait has some advice for those looking to start their own musical traditions.

“Follow your passions, never quit and be persistent. [Your passions] are there for a reason,” he said. “Never give up school; never give up academia. As a result [of school], I am rich, the content is richer and it wouldn’t have been had I given up one or the other.”

Had Parfait given up, we’d likely never hear his amazing life story. Parfait has a monthly gig every first Friday at Lents Commons coffeehouse (9201 SE Foster Rd). He’s currently in the process of tracking his new album, Faceless Love, at Ghost Studios in Portland. The record is scheduled for release this year.

Whether Parfait’s story gets to the people is ultimately in the hands of a higher power. When asked about the future of Parfait, he replied:

“Honestly, only God knows. I am pursuing it when there’s resistance all around. I’m open to whatever can come of it, and I cannot close down any opportunity. If I get exposed to a larger audience, I will take it. I’m not worried about [if I don’t]. I’m just doing what I can.”

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