KAHIL EL ZABAR FROM ETHNIC HERITAGE ENSEMBLE
Courtesy of Incubator Prod
Interview done in January 02 By Scott Clyke - Montreal

For the last quarter century, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble have made it their mission to push the boundaries of jazz performance to a level that pays endless respect to its cultural beginnings, while still moving forward in unique and innovative leaps and bounds. Led by accomplished percussionist/actor/composer/professor Kahil ElíZabar, the EHE also hosts the talents of Ernest ďKahabeerĒ Dawkins on saxes and Joseph Bowie on trombone. Born out of the extended family of performers who remain part of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago, the EHE are a testament to the hallowed goals of such a renowned and revered collective. Although two of the original members have passed on, ElíZabar and the band continue to tour and carry on the rich tradition of musicianship and performance that has taken them around the world numerous times.
ElíZabar is a modest, articulate man who speaks of invitations to the Kremlin and gigs with Pharaoh Sanders like they were common, everyday occurrences. His artist-in-residence project, arranged with the help of the Ministry of Culture in France, allows him to work and create in the beauty of Bordeaux, though heís certainly not above scoring a new Billy Bob Thornton film about organ theft in South Africa. He seems to spend most of his time on the road, but in the interim he has no less than 10 projects on the go, all progressive collaborations with like-minded artistic individuals who share his sense of purpose.

SC : Can you explain the mandate of the AACM and how itís stood up over the Ethnic Heritage Ensembleís 25-year history ?

KEZ : The mandate of the AACM is to perform creative music, and to give opportunity to the composer as well as the conceptualist, because youíll find that many of the unique personalities of the AACM are extraordinary conceptualists, like the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In the EHE, we were able to create our own voice that was unique to the template based on the relationship of African music and the music of Africans in America. Over the years weíve tried to evolve that concept so that the music was full in regards to harmony, rhythmic constructs, the melodic forays we work through, and most importantly the development of relationships. There was a great fellowship for the desire to create music and support others who create music in the AACM. The bottom line is to support and promote creative music and the people who do that collectively. I think the EHE has stayed true to that.

SC : Do you feel like thereís an abundance of black artists who share that same point of view in this day and age ?

KEZ : No. I think itís a difficult point of view to maintain because the majority of things in the Western environment promote the individual instead of the collective, and the opportunities appear to be so scarce that it creates enormous pressure, and in many ways tears down that idea. Thatís where the individuals that Iíve collaborated with over the years are quite special. Weíve helped nurture and re-energize each other against the popular grain, so that we would maintain our values, goals and ideals.

SC : Do you still involve yourself in the workshops that you were doing a couple years ago ?

KEZ : Yes. Itís real important to pass things on, to look at your students to see the viability of your ideas. Through the AACM School, where I was both chairman of the organization and director of the school, young musicians like guitarist Keith Henderson, bassist Daryl Jones, Steve Coleman-these were all students of mine, and to see what has happened with their careers and the way they live as individuals, developing their own relationships with artists and passing on the general ideas. When we see these kinds of things it reinforces what we have attempted to do.

SC : How come Joseph Bowie isnít with you for the 25th anniversary tour ?

KEZ : The group actually started in í73, but in í77 we went to Europe and stayed a year until í78. The group had arrived there as a quintet, but by the time we left Europe it was just two saxophones and me, the drummer. And it stayed that way for pretty much the next 15 years. Joe joined about 12 years ago and it became a sax, a trombone and a drummer, so we wanted this 25th anniversary to be a commemoration of what we were known as predominantly, and we asked Ari Brown to tour in the spirit of Edward Wilkerson and Henry Huff, who died.

SC : I was part of a discussion earlier this week talking about the magnitude of hip hop culture today and the inevitability of selling out. Is it difficult to reap the benefits of the so-called American Dream and not sell out as a black artist ?

KEZ : It depends on what the dream is. Thereís a multiplicity of cultures in America. If weíre speaking to the idea of the dominant social culture, which is European, it is very difficult, but nothing is impossible. If we deal with the idea of the Native American, which I think is the primary essence of this land base because these were the people who made reference to ecology and spirit and respect to community, yes, itís possible to develop mobility with some economic sovereignty and still maintain a commitment to land, family and God.

SC : I know you were a professor, but for how many years ?

KEZ : About 12 years.

SC : Are you still teaching now ?

KEZ : Iíve been this doing this Bluiett-Jackson-ElíZabar Trio thing, and the Ritual Trio with Pharaoh Sanders has been working a lot, Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, duets with David Murray and Billy Bang, and then working with my new band Jupa Collective, which is a mixture of house music, hip hop, so-called jazz, world music and spoken word.

SC : So basically you have no time to be teaching right now.

KEZ : (laughs) Not exactly !

SC : Who are you collaborating with in the Jupa Collective ?

KEZ : Itís a hip hop group called Primeridian, a poet from Atlanta called Tamber Madison Shaw, and from Chicago, Susanna Sandoval, Ari Brown, Fareed Haque, Bobby Irving, and from Poi Dog Pondering, Frank Orrel. Thereís also a visual artist whoís supporting us called Design.

SC : How did all of this come about ?

KEZ : Well, yíknow, Iíve always liked to dance, and I was hanginí out in the clubs and noticed a real significant division between the hip hop culture, house and retro kinds of communities. Now dance is supposed to be for the praise of God, and people have danced throughout the centuries. I thought, how can I take these environments and find some people who are flexible enough to see that dance is kind of the grounding force behind it all, and then tie in some artists from other disciplines and visual arts, as well as some olí heads-the jazz musicians. We started experimenting, and over the course of two years we developed a formal relationship, which is how most of my groups have happened. Last year we went to Bordeaux, France, under my artist-in-residency project and we worked for three months and came out with a recording. Thatís coming out in about two months. Iíll bring up the demo so you can hear it.

SC : What about live shows ? Has anyone ever seen Jupa perform ?

KEZ : Weíre playing the Munich Jazz Festival April 12 and 13, and Frankfurt in October. Weíre also doing a month residency between August 23 and September 23 in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

SC : You donít mess around, man. How old are you now, if you donít mind me asking ?

KEZ : Iím 49 years old.

SC : Youíre still a young man. It seems to me that you do more in one month than most sharp-minded young people do in one year. Does it ever catch up with you ? I mean, youíre runniní ragged !

KEZ : Well, sometimes, but what you put out is what I focus on. Just look at all the great artists that just kept putting out parts of themselves-Frank Lloyd Wright, Miles Davis, yíknow ? Thatís where the replenishment comes from, doing the work, the energy of completion and the relationships to people who receive it. You get scared, you get tired and frustrated a lot because thatís part of the building process, but you get it back in the end.