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A tapestry of polyrhythmic delight

Kahil El Zabar - Ethnic Heritage Ensemble
Ascension Loft
Chicago, IL
March 7, 2010

Kahil El Zabar Kahil El Zabar Kahil El Zabar

Story by Brad Walseth
Photos by John Broughton

A spirit of brother- and sister-hood and postive energy permeated the atmosphere at Kahil El Zabar's Ascension Loft in Garfield Park last Sunday night. As many of the people attending the event would tell you - it is always an occasion of joy when El Zabar returns to Chicago from his various worldwide endeavors and puts on a concert with his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (Corey Wilkes & Ernest Khabeer Dawkins). This celebration of life included good conversation, great music and delicious food (homemade chili and other goodies) prepared by the man himself were on this tap in a comfortable location surrounded by brilliantly colored artwork.

After a mingling session for a while among the friendly and intelligent attendees, Sister Sunshine provided a "libation" - a recitation of Langston Hughes' The Negro Mother and invited the audience members to call out the names of persons who have passed on. The trio - having just returned from a three-week tour in Europe - then ascended the stage and Zabar launched into one of his trademark performances of a popular song done the "Kahil way." Singing and playing the African drums, he was soon joined by Wilkes and Dawkins in what was soon revealed to be a wonderful Africanized "Cherokee." Both Wilkes and Dawkins took turns with lusty solos - with Khabeer amusing the crowd by injecting a snippet of "Down by the Riverside" into the mix.

The second song showcased El Zabar's virtuoso ability on the mbira (thumb piano - sometimes also called kalimba). Dawkins performed here on soprano before switching to tenor, while Corey introduced his muted horn and both pitched in with percussion to help their leader create a tapestry of polyrhythmic delight.

Between the songs, El Zabar regaled the crowd with stories. He recounted how when he first started the Ensemble 36 years ago, people told him that a trio with percussion and two horns would never be accepted. That has obviously proven to be false. He also kept the crowd in stitches with amusing stories about Pharoh Sanders and former AACM fellow members and legends Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors. (You can find out more about El Zabar's work and legacy at his official Web site -

El Zabar moved behind the drum kit to finish up the first set with a tune they were calling "What Would Trane Think?" - which drew on the "Blue Train" theme while contemplating what the iconic saxophonist would think of the state of the world today.

After spending some time upstairs among artist Lucy Slivinski's incredible works my evening ended soon thereafter as I had to make my long trek home, but I was thankful to have spent time within the vibrant and stimulating walls of the Ascension Loft.

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Kahil El Zabar Kahil El Zabar

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