A true jazz legend, Kahil El’Zabar has been making music for a half century. For most of that time, he has been the leader and percussionist of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, which he co-founded in 1973. This year, the group— now with members who were born after El’Zabar began his music career— is touring the country with a 45th-anniversary celebration.
“I didn’t realize it until someone told me last year, ‘You started the band in 1973,’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ And they said, ‘Well, won’t it be 45 years next year?'” El’Zabar said, laughing. “I feel very thankful for the experiences that I’ve had and the musicians that I’ve had the good fortune to work with. If your work has value to others, then you feel that you’ve served. That’s been the main thing for me as an artist.”
El’Zabar and the Ensemble will stop at the Ohio Theatre on Sunday, February 18 for a History in the Making tribute concert. Organized by Liz Harris of the Glass City Goat Gals, the even, will honor local legends as well as pay tribute to El’Zabar and his group.
“It evolves with the voices of the individuals that come into the band,” El’Zabar said of the group. “What I learned from Miles Davis was one, never be intimidated by other people’s talent, and then allow that talent to translate into creating opportunities for yourself. Miles always had really, really great players, and he allowed Coltrane to be himself.”
Speaking with El’Zabar is a conversation with music history. The man has known and collaborated with some of the biggest names in the history of the art. Nina Simone. Dizzy Gillespie. Stevie Wonder. Paul Simon. The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has seen luminary members like co-founder Edward Wilkerson, Jr., Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, Ernest Dawkins and more, before establishing its current lineup of El’Zabar, Cory Wilkes and Alex Harding.
In the moment
“I’ve worked with a lot of great musicians over the years with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, and now, with Cory Wilkes and Alex Harding, I’m with musicians that are young enough to be my kids. Cory’s 38, and I think Alan’s 45, and I have a daughter, 46.
“I try very hard not to dwell on the accolades of what has happened— I’m more excited about what can happen in the moment,” El’Zabar said.
When the ensemble was first formed, it functioned as a largely traditional jazz ensemble, with a wide variety of instruments. During a tour of Europe, the group’s lineup dwindled to only three members, with El’Zabar on percussion and two horn players. That arrangement began out of necessity but soon it became the ensemble’s signature sound.
“We were very afraid, having such unique instrumentation. But we were away from home, we were in our early 20s, and we had to survive. And we developed a language and a formula that allowed us to play in a very non-traditional instrumentation all these years,” El’Zabar said.
VIP reception: 5pm, $30. Concert: 8-11pm, $20.
Sunday, February 18.
The Ohio Theatre, 3114 Lagrange St., 419-255-8406 ext. 305. ohiotheatretoledo.org