In the late 60s and early 70s, jazz musicians popularized Albert Ayler’s notion that “music is the healing force of the universe”–which puts them about four centuries behind the Gnawa people of Morocco. The Gnawa believe that all human beings resonate to one of ten colors, each associated with a family of spirits and represented by a specific note; by playing these notes they hope to evoke purifying vibrational responses in their listeners. The Gnawa also believe that their incantatory, hypnotic rhythms–produced by ritualized, percussive dance steps and a handful of simple instruments, including a three-stringed bass lute called a sintir; qaraqeb, or metal castanets; and a large drum called a tbel–can have more precise medicinal functions, spiritually healing everything from scorpion stings to psychic disorders. Pianist and composer Randy Weston first encountered the Gnawa in 1968, during the five years he spent running a nightclub in Morocco. African music had influenced his writing since the early 50s, and after his time in Morocco the Gnawa traditions inspired some of his work, most notably the early-70s piece “Blue Moses.” But not until 1992 did Weston actually perform with the Gnawa, attempting to blend their otherworldly utterances directly with his own music; unfortunately the resulting album, The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco Featuring Randy Weston (Antilles), offered mostly Gnawa, only a couple minutes from Weston, and nothing by way of transcontinental fusion. Weston’s first Chicago appearance with the Gnawa holds considerably more promise. The pianist will start the set with a quintet he calls African Rhythms, which includes deep-soul horn men Benny Powell (trombone) and Talib Kibwe (saxophone). Then, according to reports from a New York gig, a group of half a dozen or so Gnawa will join the performance, gradually changing the focus from the quintet’s music to their own; behind them Weston, bassist Alex Blake, and drummer Neil Clarke will fit their own commentary to the Moroccans’ colors and rhythms–an arrangement that should provide the synergy lacking on the disc. Powerhouse Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes opens the show with a solo set. Friday, March 16, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.