Musician, educator and tailor to the stars Kahil El'Zabar takes stock of
Black History Month
By SCOTT C, Montreal Mirror
Last year, Montreal played host
to a group of talented musicians who had blown into town from the windy
city. The Chicago Now Jazz Series featured performances from the young
and hungry Ken Vandermark, the fresh tones of Isotope 217, and the
tribal-jazz smatterings of Kahil El'Zabar and his Ritual Trio.
This year, in the midst of Black History Month, El'Zabar returns to
Montreal with yet another incarnation of what he calls a dedication to
representing an African American musical heritage. The Ethnic Heritage
Ensemble embodies just that, mixing the American jazz tradition with not
only African influences, but Brazilian and East Indian as well. Renowned
percussionist, teacher and author El'Zabar is joined by trombonist
Joseph Bowie, son of recently deceased trumpet legend Lester Bowie, and
Ernest "Khabeer" Dawkins on saxophone.
For 20 years the trio has personified atypical instrumentation and
superb musicianship, while maintaining a spirituality that is felt
throughout. To say that the musical history of these three combined is
staggering, is an understatement, having collectively played with names
like Henry Threadgill, Ramsey Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, Stevie Wonder,
Donny Hathaway and Hamiett Bluiett, to name only a few. I spoke to Kahil
El'Zabar early last week from his home in Chicago.
Mirror: I think it's important to point out that you're not just
a jazz musician. You're all over the place.
Kahil El'Zabar: Well, the Creator has blessed me with
sensitivity to the arts. I mean, I don't even know how to work a
computer or my own stereo system. We all have limitations. I've always
designed clothes, been involved in theatre since I was much younger,
been involved in music since my preteens performin' and composin' or
whatever, and been surrounded by good people who helped develop my
M: You say you design clothes. Are you the man behind the
decidedly tribal look of the group?
KE: Somewhat. When Speech was looking for a look for Arrested
Development, the folks from Atlanta came to me to design the pants and
stuff that they were wearin', which are called "chokatos." Back in the
early '70s, I was living in Geneva as Nina Simone's percussionist. All
of her headdresses and gowns at the time I was designing, when she had
really gone for a more cultural kind of look.
M: Tell me about teaching at the university level, 'cause I know
I would trip if I had you as a teacher.
KE: (laughs) I've had some interesting gigs. I was hired at the
university of Illinois by their school of architecture, taking that
program's students at the master level, and blending them with dancers,
musicians, painters, writers in collaborative projects that were aimed
at developing the artistic side rather than the technical side of
M: What about kids, man. Do you have any seeds to pass on this
God-given talent to?
KE: I've got six of them man, ranging from ages 27 to eight
months. Why do you think I work so hard?
M: So you've been making your contribution in more ways than
KE: Yes, I am.
M: How do you feel about Black History Month?
KE: Black History Month is the reason the Ethnic Heritage
Ensemble has worked steady in the month of February for 20 years
(laughs). That's the month when everybody wants us.
M: A lot of black artists have mixed emotions about the whole
thing, though. Don't you get mad?
KE: I can't really speak on other people's position or stance,
but I think the idea of recognition, whether it's coming from a
patronizing perspective or not, is the issue. The larger issue is
creating awareness of the significance. People have always celebrated
all kinds of things through every kind of social culture in history, so
if there is actually a moment where we can canvass with a more focused
identity, we have to take that momentum. There is so much miseducation
and inexposure to the significance of people of African descent and
their connection to other parts of the world.
M: Do you think the African in African American is taken for
KE: The Moors were in Spain. Brazil has more people of African
descent than the United States or Canada. Black History should be going
on year long? Yes. Granted, it should be, but if it didn't go on at all,
we would still be in the same kind of obscure space of recognition and
appreciation as we have been in preceding years.