Rhythm & dues

>> 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 talents.

 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 things.

 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 one.

 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 granted?

 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.