Music Prevails: Ethnic Heritage Ensemble celebrates four decades tonight at The Rotunda

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Ethnic Heritage Ensemble | Photo courtesy of the artist
Ethnic Heritage Ensemble | Photo courtesy of the artist

The inspiration for the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble came to the group’s founder, percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, when he was studying at the University of Ghana in the early 1970s. But despite the band’s ground-breaking fusion of jazz and traditional African music, it wasn’t his experiences in Ghana that brought the concept to light so much as a “No place like home moment” that steered him back to his native Chicago.

“After a year and a half of study, one of my professors in Ghana asked if I knew how to play the blues,” El’Zabar recalls. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m from Chicago.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s your language.’ So after all that time learning the traditional forms, they then told me that my real voice was the ethnicity of my own experience. That’s why I named the band the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: a lot of people think it’s about the connection to Africa, but it’s really about the African-American experience in music: gospel, jazz, blues, funk.”

The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble will celebrate its 40th anniversary in Philly on Wednesday night at The Rotunda, in a performance presented by Ars Nova Workshop. Its current incarnation, with El’Zabar, saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, and trumpeter Corey Wilkes, has remained constant for nearly a decade and will soon release its latest CD, Black is Back (Catalyst). “I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done,” El’Zabar says. “In a way, I can’t believe that the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble is still here after four decades, but we’re still attempting to the best of our abilities to express music in an alternative space that has value and history.”

Born in 1953, El’Zabar has played with jazz greats including Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderley as well as pop superstars like Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. But his chief association has been with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the seminal organization founded in Chicago in 1965 to support the city’s forward-thinking jazz community. El’Zabar joined the AACM as a teenager, and became its chairman in 1975 after returning from Ghana.

“Having that experience before I went to college gave me a greater security in invention and discovery and individual voice,” El’Zabar says. “So I wasn’t consumed by my academic education and therefore limited in my ability to explore things counter to academic training. Then when I came out of school, I was at a different level as a player and a composer and I had all these extraordinary musicians and conceptualists to work with. To be in that company was a great honor.”

El’Zabar’s first experience with African percussion came in the late 1960s when he joined an ensemble called The Sun Drummer, led by Atu Harold Murray, who played with Big Black and Sun Ra, and featuring Master Henry Gibson, a virtuoso percussionist best known for his work with Curtis Mayfield. “In the history of America, there had never been African-American percussionists pursuing these traditional instruments,” El’Zabar explains.

“They were still against the law in seven states, because slave owners had felt that it would lessen the economy if slaves spoke languages or played music that reminded them of wanting freedom. Most times when there were people of African descent playing African percussion, they were from the West Indies or South America or the Caribbean, because African-Americans had no exposure. So we were the first group to organize and see this as an authentic voice and a great opportunity to pursue the heritage, and what they were doing with R&B, I wanted to do with jazz.”

While attending Lake Forest College, El’Zabar was given the opportunity to study mime with Marcel Marceau in Paris, but at the urging of a former professor he switched his focus to African drumming. “That was life-changing,” he says of his time in Ghana, “because people get right in your face. They have a certain openness to expression which is intimidating because as Americans, we like to have our space around us. I’ve incorporated that into my existence ever since.”

Despite having discovered that emotional directness four decades earlier, it was still daunting for El’Zabar when he first saw Be Known, the new warts-and-all documentary by filmmaker Dwayne Johnson-Cochran. The film takes in not only his contentious relationship with his fellow musicians but his dysfunctional family life, finding him behind on child support payments to the mothers of his seven children.

“When I saw the rough cut,” El’Zabar admits, “I was like, ‘Whoa, I don’t want this movie to come out.’ But I looked at it in the second person and could see it as the art of the director more than just my personal life. When I play my music, people come to hear what I do, and I realized that the film was his music and he’s playing his song. I just happen to be the subject of it. It’s real life, and I’m a human being with frailties and idiosyncrasies. But at the end of the day the music prevails.”

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble celebrates 40 years in a pereformance tonight at The Rotunda, 4014 Walnut Street. The all-ages event is free, more information can be found here.