The Author

Carl Gustafson

Carl Gustafson grew up in Laramie, Wyoming. As a kid, Carl was taught piano by his father, but his strict teaching style left a bad taste in Carl’s mouth. His dad loved Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and could play Rachmaninoff piano concertos. Young Carl related more to Boogie Woogie and early rock n’ roll. His martinet father would hold his fist over Carl’s fingers while he tried to play music he didn’t like. He loathed piano lessons with his father.

Carl with his father & little brother.

He had a difficult time at home and was particularly bothered by how his father treated his mother –– especially when she’d come to his rescue during the draconian piano lessons. This led to him physically confronting his father when he begin to mature. His dad kicked him out of the house shortly after that, leaving Carl to fend for himself at sixteen.

Eventually, after kicking around friends houses, he stayed for awhile with his friend Ricky Stith, and his mother, Miss Peggy, an African-American family living down by the railroad tracks in his hometown of Laramie, Wyoming.

Ricky and Miss Peggy welcomed Carl into their home, shared their music, culture and love. Carl felt a genuine family connection. Ricky and Miss Peggy lived by example of acceptance and generosity, and exposed him to the true power of music and dancing. He embraced the culture and quickly fell in love with African-influenced music altogether. Carl discovered a beautiful liberty when playing music from the heart –– a freedom he had never felt when under the fist of piano perfection.


Carl started his first band at 18 years old in 1964. Alibaba and the Thieves was a 9-13-member American roots band with three go-go dancers, sometimes two drummers, three guitar players, a sax player, bass, and keyboardist. For two years, they played old R&B, soul, and rock n’ roll music at gigs in Laramie, despite being a totally different type of band for the area. Their performances were just that – they always felt like a big party.

They called themselves the Thieves because they needed a lot of equipment to make this type of music, and they did what they had to do to get it. The band often stole instrument cables and accessories from the local music store, Dean’s Music Box, and swiped lights from miscellaneous displays and signs around town including the drive in movie theater –– until they were caught mid-show. One of their lights was still marked “Lone Pine Inn,” and the owner just happened to be in the audience.

The judge sentenced some of the young musicians to either jail time, or time in the military service. Carl and his brother David, seen in the photo above, enlisted in 1966 and went off to become US Marines. Carl worked at Camp Pendleton at the tracked vehicle school there, and David was a machine gunner in Vietnam, and was awarded a purple heart for wounds he received in Battle.


When Carl returned from military service, he turned to religion and spirituality as a way to find peace, and meaning in life. He was raising three children while attending college, and later a fourth, and became a preacher for seven years, giving up music for the time being.

Then, in 1986 – 20 years after Alibaba and the Thieves broke up – an old friend asked Carl if he’d ever consider getting back into music. He said he hadn’t really thought about it, but the friend invited him to jam at his house anyway. Carl was recently divorced and felt lost from family, God, and purpose. But he had so much fun playing with his old friends, that they became the Night Owls in 1988, and were together for five years.

In 1993 Carl was still disillusioned, depressed, and crushed over the breakup of his marriage and his family. Carl joined a band called Bluestone and toured the Mediterranean in nine countries. After that tour he helped form the band, Blinddog Smokin’, which still tours today, as an escape from his disillusionment, sorrow, and regret. With three young, eager musicians as his bandmates, they hit the road.

For the next eight years, Blinddog lived on the road focusing only on making music together. They played 320 gigs a year on their busiest year, and 200 on their slowest. They slept where they could, drove to a new town every day, and met too many people to count. It was a life of constant adventure and suited Carl’s personality and circumstances well. For a time he had no home or job other than the shows they were playing on any given day.

It was Carl’s experience as a road musician that led to his initial idea for the MOJA project, which also influenced the way in which the grand story unfolded.


Carl met blues icon Bobby Rush in 1995, and the two became fast friends. They did several road shows and festivals together and discovered they were both fascinated by the progression of African music and its influence on many of today’s genres. They thought, “Someone ought to write something about this.” So they did.

They called the first version of the project “Rush Through History.” It consisted of 12 well-known cover songs all from different generations to illustrate the progression of American roots music. They soon realized they needed to delve deeper as there was much more ground to cover. Carl wanted to unequivocally answer the question, “Where does the music I love so much come from?”

He began researching everything he could about African-influenced music –– starting with its beginnings in remote and ancient Africa. Then during the peak of the slavery business, to its journey into Cuba, Haiti, and New Orleans and up the Mississippi River, and then out West. He was constantly reading books, going to museums, and interviewing anyone relevant. But the most important thing to Carl in this endeavor was to be as authentic as possible and to not serve any particular agenda. He wanted to create a story that was interesting because of its authenticity. He realized he couldn’t ensure that without seeing these places he was writing about with his own eyes.

Starting in 2017, Carl made eight trips to Africa and four trips to Cuba to experience first-hand as much as he could about the different countries’ music, history, and culture.

In Cuba, he witnessed how this special culture embraces music, treating recording sessions as family gatherings with food, dancing, and laughter.

In Africa, he noticed the country’s abundance, and how the African people never have and may never will be the ones to benefit from it. He sailed in the dhows that were once slave boats, then sailed in a smaller boat from Zanzibar to a Prison Island, a much shorter trip than the one the enslaved people took to America in the 1800s, but still enough for him to get seasick, and miserable. He had local guides take him to significant locations and asked them questions about what happened there. He interviewed current-day slaves and tribespeople about their ancestors, families and culture. He put himself in the shoes of the people who first created this music, and he focused on the emotions they must have been feeling at that time.

And he recorded, the beautiful musicians of Africa, most often introduced to him by his African traveling companion, the great Djembe master, Weedie Braimah.

There are many people who have studied African American history, culture, and music for their entire lives, and Carl learned from them. But, in addition he gained first-hand knowledge during his many travels, interviewing elders and partaking in ceremonies. Carl is pictured below with the Dogon Tribe in Mali.

Carl deeply admires the scholars who have written and researched Africa. They often steered him to the exotic places that deeply detailed his personal understanding of the emotions and tragic events along the slave trails and dungeons and horrors. Of course, Carl’s research and travel experiences could never compare to what enslaved people experienced, but he threw himself as deep into their worlds as he could physically go. He did not stop when he became uncomfortable, sad, angry, or disgusted. In those moments, he dug deeper, asked more questions, and continued to focus on the human emotion behind the gruesome stories he heard.

Carl wanted to listen to everybody’s story because the history we read about in school is usually told from the perspective of the victors, not those that perished. Though every group thinks they’re the good guys, what about those who suffered? What does their story sound like?

Carl wrote MOJA as a journalist, not an activist. He interviewed, observed, and let human emotion be the focus of his findings. He had no point to prove, only discovery of the reasons behind the music, and untold stories he was to write.

Our People

The Moja Saga is made up of “The 500” with more than five hundred musicians and collaborators from all over the world.

The Characters

The MOJA saga follows seven generations of a family.

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