Ethnic Heritage Ensemble
Blowin' in from Chicago
by Piotr Michalowski
Two years ago, many in Chicago and throughout the world celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). This organization has promoted musical creativity though self-realization, created opportunities for various forms of artistic expression, and offered training to aspiring musicians from the Windy City. It is one of the most successful examples of community self-determination in our world, and one of its stated goals is "to conduct free training for disadvantaged city youth." Among the best-known graduates of the organization's music school is percussionist Kahil El'-
Zabar, who, for over thirty years has been leading various groups, including the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, which is dedicated to the full realization of the AACM motto, "Great black music, ancient to the future."
Over the decades a number of musicians have been members of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Currently, it consists of (besides El'Zabar) saxophonist Edward Dawkins, guitarist Fareed Haque, and trumpeter Corey Wilkes. All are established musicians who also lead their own groups. Dawkins, who joined the band less than a decade ago, is also a product of the AACM music school, where he has been teaching since 1978. Wilkes, the youngest of the four, returned to Chicago after graduating from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and quickly established himself as one of the premier trumpet players in the city; he is now a member of the AACM's flagship group, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, replacing the late Lester Bowie. Guitarist Haque performs in a wide variety of contexts, from classical to jazz and rock, and blends South Asian as well as Middle Eastern elements into his playing. The Heritage Ensemble has released a number of well-received CDs over the years, and a new one with the current lineup will be available in March.
The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, as the name suggests, is dedicated to exploring the full range of Afro-American musical traditions, and the music incorporates just about every
sort of style one could imagine, from village chants to modern urban sounds. El'Zabar is a master drummer who has studied not only with American experts but also with African percussionists in Ghana; his drumkit incorporates various hand drums as well as instruments such as the African thumb piano called a kalimba (based on the mbira) and the berimbau, a Brazilian one-string instrument that is thought to have originated in Africa as well.
Although El'Zabar is the leader and directs the music from the drums, the group is not simply a showcase for lengthy percussion solos; the ensemble combines the individual voices of all four musicians, exploiting their eclectic individualities. El'Zabar is above all a composer, and he is interested in the full range of musical textures, and in group interaction. His works have been performed by many musicians and have also been heard in several films.
The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble performs at Kerrytown Concert House on Friday, February 9.
[Review published February 2007]