The New York Times
July 8, 2001
Robin D.G. Kelley
Finding Jazz’s Soul in
Randy Weston Archives a
synthesis of African
and African-American, of Benin and Brooklyn
IN 1934, Paul Robeson wrote of his desire to study West African "folk song
and folklore." Already a legend of stage and screen, Robeson was less
interested in celebrity than in introducing the world to the beauty and
power of African art. "I am convinced that there lies a wealth of
unchartered musical material in that source which I hope, one day, will
evoke the response in English and American audiences which my Negro
spirituals have done." Robeson's unfulfilled dream of collecting and
interpreting the "un-chartered musical material" of Africa has been taken
up by the pianist and composer Randy Weston.
Mr. Weston, 75, uncannily embodies Robeson's spirit. A towering presence
possessed of eloquence, dignity and a scholar's intellect, Mr. Weston
studied African culture for nearly half a century. And like Robeson, Mr.
Weston draws from the musical well of the entire black world without
losing his distinctive voice.
There have been countless efforts to fuse "authentic" African music with
Western popular or concert music, usually by incorporating African rhythms
(most commonly playing 6/4 over 4/4 time), instrumentation or background
vocalists. In most instances, African music serves as an exotic backdrop
for pop vocals, lush string arrangements or a swinging saxophone solo.
Mr. Weston's approach has been exactly the opposite; he pushes the African
rhythms to the foreground and always tries to work within a framework true
to the source, whether it's the West African dance music called highlife
or sacred songs from Morocco. These forms fit seamlessly in a jazz context
precisely because, in Mr. Weston's words, "the music that is called jazz
... for me is really an extension of African culture. "
Mr. Weston did not come to this conclusion lightly. He devoted his life to
the study of African cultures. For what connects African and
African-American music is not just the formal qualities of rhythm and
timbre but also a common spirituality. "Music is the voice of God for me."
he explained on his most recent release, 'Spirit! The Power of Music,"
"and wherever you find the spirit of sacred music, people are uplifted."
To experience Mr. Weston and the group of musicians he has assembled as
African Rhythms - Talib Kibwe on alto, soprano and flute, Benny Powell on
trombone, Alex Blake on bass and Neil Clark on percussion is like
witnessing a joyous, sacred ceremony. Anyone who has seen their
performances with the Gnawa M'Alem (Master Musicians) of Morocco knows
exactly what I'm talking about. It's like getting hit with the Holy Ghost;
they make you want to dance and shout and yet they bring a peaceful,
solemn’dignity to the space.
African music was moving people this way long before the West invented it
Mr. Weston's journey, however, begins in the Pan-African township of
Brooklyn, under the roof of his Virginia-born mother, Vivian, and his
Panamanian father, Frank Weston, an admirer of Marcus Garvey who taught
his son to appreciate African history. Initially a reluctant piano
student, Mr. Weston fell in love with the music of Duke Ellington, Art
Tatum, Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk and other masters of black music. Mr.
Weston's childhood friend, Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who was of Sudanese descent,
became an early bridge to Africa. An outstanding bassist, he also played
the oud, a Middle Eastern lute, and together they began a lifelong
exploration of North African music.
Dizzy Gillespie, the dancer and choreographer Asadata Dafora and the
historian Marshall Stearns, each contributed to Mr. Weston's knowledge of
African music. Stirred by the African independence movement, Mr. Weston
composed works celebrating African freedom. In 1960 he put together a
truly Pan-African big band and recorded his four-part suite, "Uhuru
Afrika" (Swahili for "Freedom, Africa").
Arranged by his long-time collaborator, the trombonist and composer Melba
Liston, with poetry and lyrics by Langston Hughes, " Uhuru Afrika"
acknowledged Africa's cultural ties to its descendants, honored African
womanhood and promoted the idea of a modern Africa, a beacon for a new
In 1961 and again in 1963 Mr. Weston traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, to learn
all he could about the culture, sitting in with local musicians,
collecting folk music and lecturing on jazz in the universities. He
befriended the Nigerian musician and club owner Bobby Benson, whose band
built a huge following playing highlife. Inspired by its dynamic rhythms,
Mr. Weston independently produced the album "Music From the New African
Nations Featuring Highlife" in 1963 (it was re-released on CD as "Uhuru
Afrika/Highlife"), which included a rendition of Mr. Benson's "Niger
Mambo" and a lively adaptation of a Bashai folk song called "Congolese
Mr. Weston returned to Africa in 1967, this time for a 14-country tour
sponsored by the State Department. By the tour's end, he knew he could not
return to the United States, a country short on spiritual values and long
on racial tension, so he moved to Morocco - first to Rabat and later to
Tangier, where he opened the African Rhythms Cultural Center. He gave up
commercial opportunities to study with masters of traditional music,
primarily the Gnawa. Descendants of slaves taken from sub-Saharan West
Africa, the Gnawa are known for their sacred healing songs. Using
instruments like karkaba (metal clappers, forerunners of castanets) and
the hag'houge (a three-stringed box "guitar"), Gnawa M'Alem play complex
poly-rhythms with shifting tempos and greater tonal variation than one
finds in the Western 12-tone scale. They believe that everyone has a color
and a note to which one vibrates.
MR. WESTON'S engagement with African cultures has profoundly influenced
his compositions and playing. Following his Moroccan sojourn, albums like
"Blue Moses," "Tanjah" and "The Healers," among others, beautifully
synthesize North African music and African-American blues while retaining
the spiritual core central to both. It is fair to say that Mr. Weston has
created "new spirituals," sacred music grown from the soil of traditions
from Benin to Brooklyn to Beijing, transformed by his own spirit and
imagination. Listening to his albums of the last decade - notably "The
Spirits of Our Ancestors," "Saga," "Earth Birth" and "Khepera" - inspires
dance and prayer all at once. His recordings with the Gnawa M'Alem reveal
not only a keen knowledge of the music but also a willingness to submerge
his own voice for the integrity of the traditional form. On "The Splendid
Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco," a recording he made with nine M'Alem,
arranged by his friend Abdelia El-Gourd, a master hag'houge player, Mr.
Weston appears on only one song, "Chalabati," and he plays sparse phrases
that blend subtly into the overall sound.
Mr. Weston's insistence that jazz is essentially African music, that
African music is at its core sacred and that African culture has shaped
world history has not won many adherents among mainstream critics. But it
really doesn't matter because Mr. Weston is not in this for fame, fortune
or good reviews. Again, like Paul Robeson, Mr. Weston is a truth seeker
who sees a power in music much greater than all of us. Besides, those who
have experienced Mr. Weston and African Rhythms know he is right by how
the music makes us feel.
Robin D.G. Kelley
Reprinted with the authorization of
Robin D.G. Kelley