The Gnawa were brought up from sub-Saharan Africa hundreds of years ago in bondage. They are master musicians who believe that everyone has a color and a musical note to which he or she vibrates. During healing ceremonies individuals respond to their chosen color and note. Ultimately the goal of the Gnawa is to play every note perfectly lest a wrong note adversely affect the listener and destroys the healing power. This music is known to treat scorpion stings and psychic disorders.
The rhythms of the Gnawa can be heard in many other types of music, including blues, jazz, Latin, Brazilian, calypso, and spirituals. Pianist Randy Weston recognized this thirty years ago when he first encountered the Gnawa. At a healing ceremony Weston responded to the color blue, which is also the color of Sidi Musa (Blue Moses, an Islamic spirit). Shortly thereafter, with the permission of the Gnawa, Weston began to play an adaptation of "Blue Moses". That song remains a staple of all his concert performances to this day, and it was fitting that Weston open his illuminating set Friday night at Chicago's Symphony Center with the song.
Weston, bass player Alex Blake, and percussionist Neil Clarke laid down a tight, entrancing rhythm. This continued until trombone legend Benny Powell and saxophone player Talib Kibwe came onstage, their horns heralding the arrival of the Master Gnawa Musicians: Tangiers natives Abdellah El Gourd, Abdenebi Oubella, and Mostafa Oubella; with Marrakesh representatives M'barek Ben Othman, Ahmed Ben Othman, and Abbes Larfaoui.
The Gnawa, playing traditional guenbri (a three-string fretted instrument resembling a banjo), and dumbbell-shaped castanets called qraqeb, hypnotized the audience with their music and dancing. They also blended perfectly with Weston's band in a seamless mixture of Eastern and Western musical styles.
The Ganwa influence was indelible. Blake strummed his bass like a guenbri, particularly on the Ellington classic "Night Flight" and "African Sunrise". Kibwe soared to the heavens on "The Shrine". The set ended with Weston bringing the Gnawa back onto the stage and Kibwe coaxing them into the audience for a New-Orleans style procession.
Opening the show was Chucho Valdes, the legendary pianist and founder of the pioneering ensemble Irakere. Valdes displayed a virtuosity of the piano that a classically trained player could only hope for. Valdes switched from Gershwin standards, blues, rolling arpeggiated runs, thunderous clusters, and Latin rhythms with an ease and grace that can only be matched by Weston, Cecil Taylor, Oscar Peterson, and McCoy Tyner. At times it sounded as if Valdes had twenty fingers.