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The Gnawa are a syncretic sect inflected by elements of Mystical Islam and North African local religious themes. In the West they have become well known for their public music, based in rugged hypnotic pentatonic vamps played on the guembri, a kind of proto-lute with a rubbery twang, and accompanied by percussion, singing and the clatter of metal clappers called krakebs.

It’s literally entrancing music. Gnawa music is embedded in holistic cultural practices but the Gnawa have also hit the road to great acclaim, playing ensemble music for audiences worldwide. The American jazz musician, the musical and physical giant Randy Weston has integrated Gnawa music in his own compositions. I first heard the Gnawa sound via Weston, and also had the great pleasure of hearing him lecture on the Gnawa. After the lecture we shared a moment talking about the picture of trance music in North and South Africa. This made for a memorable afternoon and set me off to investigate the musical culture of North Africa and the Sahel.

There are lots of good resources on the web. Number one is Gnawa Stories

Shamanic practitioner Nicholas Breeze Wood provides a concise overview of the Gnawa music ceremony in Acrobat form.

I’ve incorporated a section on Berber and Gnawa music in my Rhythm River programs.

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Teaching Cartoon: (Steve) Lacy Wise

teaching cartoon - aphorism of Steve Lacy

Commentary: the last quotation of the late genius of improvisation has wider applications.

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Here’s twenty minutes of pedal steel love from Mr. Emmons, Susan Alcorn, and from Demola Adepoju, out of Nigeria.


The photo is of a Sho-Bud Maverick. I have no idea why they’ve kept their value over the years but I do know why I sold mine some three decades ago. I wrestled it and the darn guitar won!

I’m mildly interested in a Carter student model…being a sucker for reliving punishments of yore. No, not really the reliving part.

Top slidemasters? Emmons, Kleinow, Manness, Rhodes, Alcorn. Oh, and Lloyd Green and on and on.

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For a very brief and very deluded time in my late teens, I thought I’d like to be cool and for me the height of cool was pedal steel master Sneaky Pete Kleinow. (Think Wild Horses by the stones, but his rep was made with The Flying Burrito Brothers. I was so into the “steel” I could admit Lloyd Maness, Red Rhodes, Buddy Emmons, and others were greater virtuosos than the Sneaky One, yet, no slideman had a more tubular sound and Sneaky was the only one who often would just jump out of the sundry country rock grooves of the period.

Heck, i went out and bought a Sho Bud Maverick and spent hours sitting at it meditating on how it was all beyond me even if the student steel guitar didn’t return to the correct pitch after you’d press one of the pedals.

I’m not being maudlin this week. As an associate put it, “life is for the living” but, man, a triple play out into the cosmic orchestra. RIP Sneaky and thanks for the permanently etched sounds. Enjoy the light end of the street…

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A friend of mine recently afforded me the opportunity to do a project. He loaned me the compact disc set of Thelonious Monk’s London Sessions, (that I’ve long owned on LP,) and I compiled two CDs from the three discs. The first consists of the various master and alternate takes and ends with the musing riff, Chordially. The second disc contains the extant single takes. There are many masterpieces made during these close-to-the-end (1971) sessions recorded for Alan Bates and Black Lion Records. Most famous is the rending solo version of Loverman.

For the trio sides Bates joined Monk with bassist Al McKibbon and drummer Art Blakey. McKibbon is especially valued here as he shadows Monk’s late stage temporal (as in: tempo) flow. Blakey plays with uncharacteristic restraint. His work here is distinctive for this reason. Of course, those that know the complete sessions already understand on the first set I’ve compiled, I’ve brought together trio and solo versions of the same compositions.

My goal was to assemble a listener’s version for study and contemplation. Having previously posted on religious matters I’m tempted to elevate my deep love for Monk and his music to something on the order of a religious devotion and, perhaps, to a religion. In one personal sense, why the heck not? After all, with Monk at the head of my pagan musical pantheon, this idiosyncratic religion would be about beauty and goodness as well as truth.

I heard Monk on record for the first time when I was 19. Monk Underground. It sounded weird and like nothing else I had heard, like no other jazz I had heard up to then, (this was the second year of my being turned to jazz.) Harvey Pekar hipped me to reissues just released (1973-74) and so my first Monk record was the Prestige two-fer, Thelonious Monk, containing sessions recorded between 1952 and 1954. The last trio session was recorded 20 days after my date of birth.

My tattered copy of this double set has some of its liner noted highlighted in green. As I open it up today for the first time in many years, (an essential box set on CD replaced it for listening purposes,) I see highlighted:

Once a sax player complained to Monk hat he’d written something outside the range of his horn, “impossible” to execute.

“You’ve got an instrument,” counseled Monk: “either play it, or throw it away.” He played it.

Hmmm. You could start a zen-like religion on the basis of this counsel, alone.

I could go on and on. As for studying Monk, countless hours have been spent in his sound world. I hold his art as being transformative. This begs interesting questions about the nature of music. But, since I could go on and on and try to articulate a somewhat ineffable sense, I’ll lead the interested reader to one way i articulated this over ten years ago. A Monk section was the very first piece of creative work I loosed on the web, God, One Note!.

I have no favorite Monk record because when I think of one I thing of all. If you’ve never heard much of Monk, I (guess) I’d point to Brilliant Corners, recorded for Riverside. This was his first combo session for Riverside (1956) and there’s not much one can say except that Monk and his bandmates, Ernie Henry, Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, Oscar Pettiford, and Max Roach went to work and came out with something for the ages.

But, darn, when I heard the Blue Notes for the first time in 1976, (another two-fer,) I held their miniaturization to be diamond hard and explosive at the same time. Monk’s Riverside solos became available in excellent reissues from Japan and I promptly wore them out. I got a scratchy copy of the second big band record, (the collaboration with Hall Overton from 1963, this time for Columbia,) and thought I had gone to heaven.

Nowadays, the gateways to Monk paradise pop up every now and then. For example, in the past year, Blue Note has uncovered a Carnegie Hall live set featuring John Coltrane, while Concord/Fantasy has gifted the believer with the remastered Riverside studio dates with Coltrane.

But, where to begin? Here are the covers of eight starting points; the great eight. Change your musical life: go for it, for the bright moments.

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Over on the excellent creative music blog destinationout, saxophonist Noah Howard is featured. He was part of the first avant-garde wave in the sixties, recording for ESP, and has been making a comeback over the last fifteen or so years. destinationout provides a rich recap, mp3 examples, and the link to Noah Howard’s fine web site, discography, and even more examples of organic and melodic adventurism.

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The first presentation in the Music and Experience series, KALAHARI ORIGINS, takes place Thursday, June 1st at 7:00pm in the Main Auditorium of Lakewood Public Library. (15425 Detroit, Lakewood, Ohio) The program’s are focused on a deeply appreciative encounter aimed to go beyond mere ‘musical appreciation’.

KALAHARI ORIGINS is about the folkloric music of the San and Himba peoples of the Kalahari Desert (in southern Africa) and the music of ancient Africa. Participants will listen to both Khoi-San music and other spiritual music from South African traditions and then collaboratively imagine this music’s purposes and transmission over tens of millenia.

Bring your big ears and hearts when you come!

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We don’t determine music,
The music determines us;
We only follow it
To the end of our life:
Then it goes on without us.

Steve Lacy

No doubt the genius player is shocking angels right now with single notes.

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