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. Continue reading →