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Artist Profiles

Randy Weston: African Rhythms

By Published: February 23, 2004
That underlying rhythm is prominent in Weston’s working group, the African Rhythms Quintet, a distinctive unit in jazz that eschews the American trap drum kit, substituting the multi-percussion of hand drummer Neil Clarke in its place. The group’s unique rhythmic sound is further enhanced by the idiosyncratic style of Alex Blake’s often-strummed bass, the very personal vocalized sounds of New Orleans-born trombonist Benny Powell and the exotic voice of alto saxophonist/flutist Talib Kibwe and/or Texas tenor Billy Harper. “We are more of a family,” the patriarchal pianist proudly proclaims. “We’ve been together a number of years and there’s a lot of respect and love between us and a lot of respect for our ancestors and what came before us. We play music, but we try to understand a little bit more about African civilization, in music, in poetry, in architecture, in philosophy. Things we usually don’t get in school, so we’ll give each other books. They’re not only great musicians, they’re also very much interested in our culture, so we have a great time together.”

Weston’s recent CD Spirit! The Power of Music (Sunnyside, 2003) unites the band with the Gnawa musicians of Marrakesh and Gnawa musicians of Tangier in a synthesis of African and American music, in the tradition of his earlier recordings Uhuru Africa, Bantu, Tanjah Blue Moses and African Cookbook. Weston’s close association with the Gnawa people goes back to the years he lived in Morocco and he has been deeply influenced by their culture. “Gnawa represents the strength and spirituality of African culture because of their history of being taken as slaves and soldiers, crossing the Sahara Desert and settling in Morocco. They’ve created a very powerful spiritual music, just like African Americans have in this country, because the Creator is extremely important in traditional societies. So with the Gnawan people I’ve experienced some incredible music. They have communication with nature, with the Creator. They play games in music, they do rituals in music, they eat fire in music, they tell history in music and they dance and tell jokes and do everything with music and it’s wonderful for us because we are experiencing a tradition that is thousands and thousands of years old.”

The disc documents a year 2000 concert in which Weston is reunited with the group with whom he first recorded eight years before, on the Verve album The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco, at the Lafayette Presbyterian Church. The moving music is transcendentally spiritual and indicative of the leader’s power to obliterate artificial barriers erected by a categorization-craving industry and bring together not just musicians but the people who listen to them. “It was a very special evening,” says the pianist, whose six foot seven stature and dignified demeanor bring a regal ceremonial air to all of his performances, “because (though not heard on the CD) Babatunde Olatunji with his group opened up the concert and after that it was ourselves and then the Gnawan people. What was so wonderful was that we had these three religions, Christianity, Islam and Yoruba, in music and the church was just packed with people. It was so spiritual, all this wonderful music together. So it was quite, quite the evening. One I’ll never forget.”

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