The stage is set at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater for a rare appearance by Randy Weston and the Gnawa musicians of Morocco. On one side of the stage is Randy’s black grand piano. Behind it is a set of congas and percussion instruments. And to the right is an enormous Middle Eastern carpet laid atop a raised stand.
The occasion is a rare appearance by Randy Weston and musicians from Gnawa. The musicians ancestors were brought from West Africa - the name "Gnawa" being a corruption of "Ghana" - from the eleventh century as slaves who became to Islamic converts. They believe that each person has a color or note to which they vibrate, and their goal in playing - which extols God and the spirits of the saints - is perfection , as one wrong note might destroy the music’s healing powers. In Morocco, they are often hired for all-night purification ceremonies known as lila or derdeba, and are renowned for their ability to cure scorpion stings and psychic disorders. Many Gnawan tunes revolve around the miseries of slavery, just as the American blues do, and some are reputed to be more than nine centuries old.
Randy Weston, now an octogenarian, enters wearing a gold silk outfit and donning a black cap. Weston is joined on stage by bass player Alex Blake, and African percussionist Neil Clarke who sat behind a set of congos, cymbals, and other percussion instruments. The set opens with "The Beauty of It all" (from the "Saga" CD) with Billy Harper on saxophone. Neil delicately taps his cymbals and Randy solos and then stands and applauds at the end of the number as he introduces saxophonist John Handy who comes out, head shaved and wearing sunglasses, for "Hi Fly." The rest of the band joins in, and Alex Blake moves his hands up and down the frets and thumps his bass before Randy solos. John Handy then hugs the seated Weston before leaving.
Introducing the Gnawa musicians, Randy speaks of his experiences growing up in New York City and of the spirit of curiosity of how music originated, its connections to the sacred, and its links to Africa which led him to Morocco. The musicians enter, their hair braided and costumes elaborate. One wears a light blue gown and a white cap; others have red and white caps and white gowns. Two play the guembri or hag'houge, a three-stringed plucked lute played similar to a banjo, and the tbel, a large marching. drums and krakebs or karkaba, large iron castanets. One gets up and dances and elicits handclaps from the audience. Billy Harper returns on tenor sax as bass and congas join in. John Handy returns and then Randy as the 45 minute set concludes.
The second set begins with "African Sunrise." Weston solos while Clarke plays all over the congas and taps a metal cowbell, and then plays with sticks. Alex Blake sings as he plucks his bass and taps his feet. Then, Randy introduces "The Healers" reflecting on an "ancient time" with tremendous nature where music was a healing force. Harper and Handy enter, and Harper solos, then Handy. More enchanting piano by Randy follows. Next is the Weston classic "Blue Moses," a tune named after a Muslim spirit and modeled on a Gnawa tune. The Gnawa musicians enter again and they dance and play around the stage. Randy stands and claps as the Gnawa musicians leave the stage and march through the audience to bring the concert to a conclusion.