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"B'Free" and "Exhortation" Preview- Kahil El Zabar's New Ethnic Heritage Ensemble Goes on Tour

By Debra Davy

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 Chicago jazz treasure, percussionist-rhythmist/composer/multi-instrumentalist  Kahil El’Zabar has toured for the past 44 years during Black History Month, February in the United States. It’s his “Busiest month of the year”, the period when he is ”Sought after by entities looking for the type of cultural performance” he offers.

Kahil El'Zabar; photo by Bill Tucker


 This is an artist in a league of his own. He’s both scored films and himself been the subject of a major documentary, “Be Known”. He’s put out a 60+ acclaimed discography over 4+ decades. Educated at Lake Forest College and The University of Ghana, he holds an honorary PHD in inter-disciplinary arts; he’s taught at various universities. He was appointed to the National Task Force on Arts In Education by President Clinton in 1994 and received the International Ambassador’s award from President Obama’s administration in 2012. He was bestowed a Knighthood by the government of France in 2014 for his contributions during an 11 year Artist in Residency in Bordeaux.


Despite his sojourn in France, he’s maintained a residence in  and deep ties to  Chicago.  A Tribune Chicagoan of the Year in 2006, he’s the Creative Executive Director of the Chicago Academy of Music, established in Hyde Park and now inaugurating it’s new site at St. Adalbert’s Church.


First and foremost however, this is a man who loves creating and playing great music, as a driving force in arts organizations and his own bands.

Kahil El'Zabar; photo by Elliot Mandel


 This year, he’ll be taking his New Ethnic Heritage Ensemble- himself, Corey Wilkes, trumpet, and baritone sax Alex Harding- on a whirlwind U.S. and Canadian tour, entitled “B’Free,” playing 25 concerts in less than 5 weeks. In mid-tour, he’ll come back to Illinois for the second anniversary of 2 important concerts with Fulcrum Point New Music Project, which are central to the mission. Called “The Black Composer Speaks: Exhortation”, they will be presented on February 9th at the Krannert Center of The University of Illinois in Urbana, and the following night, February 10th, at one of El’Zabar’s Chicago haunts, The Promontory in Hyde Park, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave.


This reviewer had the opportunity to interview the prolific innovator on the eve of his departure for the tour about his work, his colleagues on the tour, and the significance of the dual set with Fulcrum Point in the context of Black History month.


Already a major presence in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians at 19, and thereafter to be a collaborator with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Nina Simone and Paul Simon, El’Zabar led the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (EHE) in its first appearance in 1973 with the goal “To combine concepts of African American music with it’s earlier roots in traditional African music, to produce new motifs and sounds true to their origins yet firmly pointed in a new artistic direction”. After 40 years, and a rich and compelling, ever-evolving sound captured in discography, this legendary band is still going strong.  El’ Zabar says he has “Loved every moment of the music”.


Kahil El'Zabar; photo by Elliot Mandel


Over the years, the other 2 members of the EHE have changed. “There have been a lot of great musicians who have played in this ensemble. The various members have influenced the sound, which is constantly growing based on the contributions of the artists.”


Alex Harding; photo courtesy of New Ethnic Heritage Ensemble


As to his colleagues on the current tour he remarked, “ Alex Harding is a very kind person with a lot of love in his music. He’s diligent in the study of his instrument and has a vast understanding of the history of black music. He shares the stage in an elegant and supportive manner and is also a fine soloist”.  Of Corey Wilkes, he commented, “I’m so proud of his growth as a musician, a man, and now a new father. He’s an extraordinary stylist with a very personal approach and an individual sound. When I listen to him, it gives me hope in the future romance of music; he’s very lyrical”.  


Corey Wilkes; photo courtesy of New Ethnic Heritage Ensemble


He noted, “The spirit of one’s approach comes first, even before the technical virtuosity. All the facility in the world with nothing that comes from the heart doesn’t make good music. “


With reference to the “Black Composer Speaks/Exhortation” programs and Black History Month, he remarks, “The basis of the strength of any artistic evolution has come from ethnicity. It’s very important for the world to know about the contributions that black people have given to music”.  He only wishes that “All people, all ethnicities, all contributors could share and be heard all the time- it should be a continual integration”.


Kahil El'Zabar and Stephen Burns at "The Black Composer Speaks 2016" at The Promontory; photo by Elliot Mandel


Seth Parker Woods, PHD,  internationally acclaimed trumpeter and Curator of Inclusion and Discoveries at Fulcrum Point New Music Project, whose Artistic Director, Stephen Burns, has long been a colleague of El’Zabar’s, added these thoughts on the upcoming collaborative concerts: “My role is fluid, and through it I help to promote voices that are not necessarily always heard.  We must open doors for people of color, women, persons of a certain demographic and give them an opportunity to be heard. We must be open to their means of expression. There should be a seat at the table for everybody.” This year the “Black Composer Speaks/Exhortation” concerts, once again under the umbrella of New Music USA, will focus on “new art music, avante garde music and jazz. Cellist Tomeka Reid will premiere “an exciting new chamber work with Kahil playing in the ensemble. It’s a hybrid with great driving force, a bridge between older and newer music”.


Seth Parker Woods; photo by Michael Yu


Also heard on the program will be works by El’Zabar and the composers Alvin Singleton, Jeffrey Mumford, Olly Wilson and violinist Jessie Montgomery. “The program will take the listener on a journey. You will hear different influences from different periods of time.” About Black History Month he agrees with El’Zabar and adds,  “This month can be a heartfelt celebration for youth! It’s not about being black, but about defining this culture and what has been contributed to the countries of the world, an entire diaspora you might not know about and which should be disseminated across the globe.”


Tomeka Reid; photo courtesy of Fulcrum Point New Music Project




 The concert dates, times, places, and contact info for tickets for “B’Free”,

 Kahil El’Zabar’s New Ethnic Heritage Ensemble Tour are as follows:


- January 27, “Music as a Spiritual Experience”, 7:30 PM, Packard Performance Hall, Colorado College,

5 W. Cache Le Poudre St, Colorado Springs, Colorado; contact info TBA

 -January 29, 8PM, The Crimson Room, 1403 Larimer St, Denver, Colorado; call (720) 639-6987


 -February 2, Michelle’s Piano, time TBA, 600 SE Stark St, Portland, Oregon; call (503) 295-1180


 - February 3, Earshot Jazz/ The Royal Room, time TBA,

5000 Rainier Ave, Seattle, Washington; call (206) 906-9920


-February 4, Jazz Remedy/Artiszen Cultural Art Center, 8PM

337 Georgia St, Vallejo, California; call (707) 649-8984


-February 5, Eastside Cultural Center, 6 PM

2277 International Blvd, Oakland, California; call (510) 533-6629


-February 8, Workshop, time and site TBA, Sonoma State University, 1801 Cotati Ave, Rohnert Park, California; call (707) 664-2880


-February 9, University of Illinois, as part of “Sonic Illinois”, with Fulcrum Point New Music Project,  “The Black Composer Speaks” and “Afterglow”, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 7:30 PM, 500 S. Goodwin St, Urbana, Illinois; call (800) 527-2849

Kahil ElZabar at The Promontory for "The Black Composer Speaks" concert 2016; photo by Elliot Mandel


-February 10, The Promontory, Chicago, with Fulcrum Point New Music Project

“Exhortation, The Black Composer Speaks”, roundtable discussion, “The Convergence of Experimental Musical Mediums” 5:45, concert 7:30 PM, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave, Chicago, Illinois; call (312) 801-2100


-February 11, The Loft Society; time and contact info TBA, 119 Calhoun St, Cincinnati, Ohio


-February 12, James Street Gastropub, 8PM, 422 Foreland St, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; call (412) 904-3335


-February 13, The Erie Art Museum, afternoon concert, details TBA; 411 State St, Erie, Pennsylvania; call (815) 459 5477


-February 14, Special Event for Valentine's Day, La Sala Rossa,  time TBA, 4848 Boul. St. Laurent, Montreal, Quebec, Canada; call (514) 284-0122


-February 16, Mercury Lounge, 7 PM, 56 Byward Market Square, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; see the Mercury Lounge website  


-February 17, Caliban Arts Theatre/ Live at Remix, 8:30 PM, 1305 W, Dundas West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada;  check the Caliban Arts Theatre website         


-February 18, Nnamdi Center for Contemporary Art, 8 PM, 52 E. Forest Ave, Detroit, Michigan; call (313) 831-8700



Kahil El'Zabar performing at The Promontory; photo by Elliot Mandel

-February 19, The Bop Shop, 7:30 PM, 1460 Monroe Ave, Rochester, New York; call (585) 271-3354


-February 22 and 23, Nublu, time TBA, 151 Avenue C, East Village, New York, New York; contact info TBA


 -February 24, Ars Nova Workshop/FringeArts, “The Freedom Principle”, 8PM, 140 N. Columbus Blvd, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;  checkthe Fringearts website                             


 -February 25, An Die Musik Live, 9:30 PM, 409 N. Charles St, Baltimore, Maryland; call (410) 385-2638


-February 26, The Capital Fringe, Sets at 7PM and 8:30 PM, 1358 Florida Avenue, Washington, DC; call (861) 811-4111


-February 27, Kerrytown Concert House, 8 PM, 415 N. 4th Ave, Ann Arbor, Michigan; call (734) 769-2999


-February 28, Chicago Academy of Music, (new location, the St. Adalbert’s Church) time TBA, 1650 W. 17th St, Chicago, Illinois; call (312) 380-1644 or check the Chicagoacademyofmusic website

"B'Free" musicians; photo courtesy of New Ethnic Heritage Ensemble



To learn about and get tickets to the wonderful programs put on by Fulcrum Point New Music Project, see the

Fulcrumpoint website



For tickets to Kahil El’Zabar’s New Ethnic Heritage tour, “B’Free”, see the information above; check back to this site for updated information 







Published on Jan 20, 2017

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