Sahara Grim strummed her acoustic guitar on a Sunday afternoon in her Treehouse apartment, singing smoky jazz melodies that diffused slowly through her living room.
Most of the second-year ethnomusicology student’s development as a jazz musician has taken place outside the lecture hall. Her musical and personal connections with her culture have informed her work as a jazz singer, guitarist and now frontwoman of her own group, the Sahara Grim Quartet, she said.
Grim identifies as mixed-race, with an Indian and Japanese mother who was raised in Japan and a Caucasian father. Having grown up in a San Diego suburb predominantly comprised of white residents, she remembers a time when she wasn’t so accepting of her background.
“I used to wait to eat my lunch after school so the other kids couldn’t see it and I wouldn’t feel exposed,” she said. “My mother always made me Japanese dishes.”
Music became Grim’s outlet, she said. Her vocal work started in church, where she sang in the choir, and her interest in jazz began at age eight when she started taking guitar lessons with local instructor Glen Fisher.
“She was fun from the beginning, but didn’t dedicate herself for several years,” Fisher said.
When Grim began practicing as a child, she said she did not initially display the commitment necessary to progress in such an advanced form of music. But she eventually started taking her craft more seriously after she started learning music from the Bossa Nova repertoire, she said. The Brazilian pop-jazz genre resonated with her.
“She became a scholar and showed me she was willing to do the amount of work it was going to take to be successful at this,” Fisher said.
Under the tutelage of Fisher, Sahara met the three boys who would eventually become her bandmates in the Sahara Grim Quartet.
Grim serves as the lead singer as well as one of the guitarists for the band, which includes another guitarist, a bassist and a drummer. The band has recorded a few demos and has played live shows in San Diego at Lestat’s Coffee House and The House of Blues.
Fellow bandmate and drummer Alex Allen, who grew up in San Diego with Grim, said he remembers the scarcity of ethnic and musical diversity within the region.
“The scene we grew up in was very contained and homogenous in terms of genre, but what Sahara’s doing is combining a lot of different things, from pop to funk,” Allen said. “She’s very avant-garde, but also accessible.”
Some of Grim’s influences include Björk, due to the musician’s eccentric unwavering commitment to her artistic truth, along with Erykah Badu, whose sultry voice has inspired Grim’s own smooth vocals. She cites a bluegrass album by Yo-Yo Ma entitled “Goat Rodeo Sessions” as a recent source of inspiration for her work.
“I feel it’s important to not try to play or listen to what’s popular or what’s going to sell,” Grim said. “Everything’s a mix of genres now.”
San Diego-based jazz guitarist Peter Sprague, whom Grim cites as a mentor, said Grim proved her expertise when she performed with his band. During one of his gigs, he called her up onstage without prior notice to sing and riff on the spot, he said.
“That’s a tough moment – the rest of the band gets all this time to warm up, and she had to just come up on stage and be good right out the gate,” Sprague said. “She blew it out of the water.”
Having others challenge her skills as well as challenging herself has helped serve her in her journey to becoming a jazz frontwoman, Grim said.
By traveling to Japan to perform for her grandmother and pushing herself to learn how to play the sitar, a stringed instrument commonly used in classical Indian music, she has fine-tuned her connection to her mixed cultural heritage.
Grim said UCLA will aid in the development and progression of her music. She is currently enrolled in courses within the ethnomusicology department, studying both piano and writing big band arrangements.
“I’m learning a lot of theoretical stuff, so I’m taking my time to understand it,” Grim said. “It’s all part of the bigger picture and contributing to where I want my music to go in the future.”