On Jan. 27, Colorado College hosted the jazz group Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Kahil El’Zabar, the founder of the group, is an internationally acclaimed jazz composer and percussionist. Over the last four decades, he has toured the world with various jazz groups and as a solo artist. His music is influenced by African culture and history.
Dr. Michael Sawyer, Assistant Professor of Race, Ethnic, and Migration Studies at CC, invited El’Zabar to campus after a series of conversations with Philosophy Professor Jonathan Lee. “There are probably percussionists over time that have been as good as Kahil but I don’t know if anyone’s been better,” said Sawyer.
The performance coincided with the day that President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries, providing El’Zabar with a unique moment to convey his message. El’Zabar’s music strives for freedom through jazz. The timing and significance of the event were reflected by the filled auditorium, despite the fact it took place only hours before Winter Ball.
El’Zabar grew up in Chicago in the 1950s, where jazz was an integral part of the culture. He discovered his love for music at the age of four, the first time he laid hands on his father’s drums. “Jazz from its beginning, as well as now, represents the idea of freedom… something enlightening and inspiring for people,” he said.
While El’Zabar attended Lake Forest College, he studied abroad for a year in Ghana. It was during his year abroad that El’Zabar’s musical style was born. El’Zabar breaks free from conventional model restraints in music and combines African American music with traditional African styles.
“I say, I’m gonna do a group that’s just gonna be my drums and two horns, no piano, no bass, no guitar,” said El’Zabar. He dedicates his success to his parents, who were supportive despite his unconventional ideas.
El’Zabar’s tenacity and commitment to his craft has brought him success over the years. He has worked with great jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, and Nina Simone, among others. He prioritizes integrity and vulnerability in his music over technique. “ You cannot become a slave to your technique because then you’re only a machine,” he explained. As a percussionist, El’Zabar has mastered a variety of instruments including the drums and the mbira. He also uses his voice as an instrument.
“He’s doing really innovative things with respect to his rhythmic kind of performance… emotionally and musically kind of groundbreaking,” said Sawyer.
Over time, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has seen many members. Its current members are El’Zabar, Corey Wilkes, a former pupil of El’Zabar’s as well as Tony award winning baritone saxophone player Alex Harding.
“I just hope that we’re able to connect with the current millennial generation, where they can see how important their creative view of the world is… not to become a consumer, but a contributor,” said El’Zabar. Professor Sawyer hopes that the event will be one of the first in a series of innovative and thought-provoking performances at CC.