Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar brings spiritual energy to Encore Theatre’s "American Songbook" concerts


A portrait of Kahil El'Zabar; he's wearing a grey fedora and dark sunglasses.

Chicago percussionist Kahil El'Zabar blows into Dexter, Michigan, with his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble to explore the American Songbook at the Encore Theatre.

Kahil El’Zabar has a very clear memory of the greatest performance he ever attended.

“I saw [John] Coltrane at a club called McKee’s in Chicago,” the jazz percussionist and band leader said in a phone interview. “I was 15 and [drummer] Elvin Jones went to sleep while he was playing and never lost a beat. The telepathy, the power of communication and connectivity, of mind and spirit in music, that one moment changed my life because I knew that I would want to be part of that embrace for the rest of my life. I would always search for that moment when you are beyond consciousness and can express something greater than yourself. I hope for that every time. When you do it, it is the most exciting and humbling experience you ever experience.”

El’Zabar and his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble will bring his unique approach to the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter, Feb. 3-4. Last year at about the same time, El’Zabar and his group performed at Encore’s Modern Jazz Meets Musical Theatre; this year the theme is A Modern Exploration of the American Songbook.

The innovative, award-winning musician will celebrate his 70th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble next year. His career has been influenced by both his African heritage and growing up in one of America’s legendary jazz cities, Chicago.

El’Zabar’s music has a rich spiritual component that comes from both his experience in Africa and his exposure to the masters of jazz.

“When I came out of Lake Forest College in ‘73, I had an eight-month residency in Ghana,” he said. “I was at the University of Ghana in a city called Legon. Just how people related on a human level, the connection of touch, not just physical but eye and voice and through performance; it seemed to have this spirit that I wanted to retain in my own music.”

As a teenager in Chicago, he got to know performers like Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He admired the energy.

Chicago has a long history of being a major proving ground for jazz musicians.

“I think it is a bedrock environment for people to develop their authenticity, because you get exposed to so many authentic artists, whether in the more popular vein of Ramsey Lewis or more eclectic like an Andrew Hill or abstractions in jazz like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, prolific writing from Pulitzer winner Henry Threadgill, from the balladeer essential songwriting of a Donny Hathaway, the message music of The Impressions, the power of Mahalia Jackson,” El’Zabar said. “I’ve seen all these people, so it had to affect me, I believe, in a positive way, as well as many other artists. Chicago has given them their incubator and from there they develop their voice and it can go into the world.”

El’Zabar has performed with a who’s who of jazz and popular music performers including Donny Hathaway, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderly, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, and many more.

Wonder impressed El’Zabar with his energy and love of performing.

“It was a concert in the early ’80s with Stevie Wonder and we played for almost four hours straight,” he said. “He has so many hits and the prolific range of his performance and the audience asking for more, the excitement didn’t stop for four hours. The band members and I were like 'Wow.'”

El’Zabar is a multi-instrumentalist but his main focus has been on performing on a wide range of percussion instruments. He was once chided by a Downbeat writer on why someone with his education and academic background would choose to play some of the “primal instruments” he plays.

“The key of our life is really vibration,” he said. “Vibration is a sequence of syncopation associated with the infancy of mathematics through the process of syncopation, of communication that is far beyond just the beat. The transmission of frequency, the energy related to form, structure, ability to lead a band within the syntax, form, and structure of the music, all have to do with the drummer. It actually comes from Africa, because in Africa drummers were the leaders of ensembles, and so for me, it was quite natural to become a leader and composer and to have percussion as a purveyor of cadences, of the nuance and lexicon of what my music has been known for.”

The instrument that drew everyone’s attention when The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble played at Encore last year was a small hand-held box with metal prongs that are plucked to create a variety of sounds.

“When I first started playing the kalimba [thumb piano] and nobody knew what I was doing, they’d ask what are you doing with that little box,” El’Zabar said. “Now it’s a multi-million dollar industry just making the instrument. There were a few groups like Randy Weston and the Art Ensemble, some of the things Don Cherry would do, but there weren’t a lot of people in the late ’60s and early ’70s who were incorporating an authentic sense of African sensibilities in jazz performance,”

El’Zabar said other musicians began to take an interest in the unusual-looking instrument.

“I pursued the instruments in Ghana and studied with masters there. I learned that the instrument went back to the Egyptian hieroglyphs. You can see small imagery of what is called in West Africa the kalimba. So it’s very ancient and it makes sense when you think about the xylophone, the marimba, the piano. A tone is measured at a certain length and then it creates that quality of sounds, different lengths, different weights the sounds will be different,” El’Zabar said.

“What’s interesting about that instrument and African music is that the instruments are meant to amplify the language and vocal tones of the voices of the people and of society,” he said.

Trumpeter Corey Wilkes, percussionist Kahil El'Zabar, and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding are the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble.

Trumpeter Corey Wilkes, percussionist Kahil El'Zabar, and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding are the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble.

El’Zabar started the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble in 1974. The lineup has changed over the years with El’Zabar as the anchor. In the current lineup, Corey Wilkes plays trumpet and Alex Harding plays baritone saxophone, as he did with El’Zabar in Joseph Bowie's Defunkt.

“About five years ago I invited Alex to join this band because I love his playing and love his personality as a human being and I cherish our friendship,” he said.

Corey Wilkes has been part of the trio for more than 20 years.

El’Zabar said there are plans to tie together his 70th birthday with the 50th anniversary of the Ensemble with performances in France, New York City, and of course, Chicago.

“In the last few years, my career has really grown in visibility,” he said. “People are [believing] in the things I do, they can see the relevance in a global sense. I am really excited about working with people who are promoting aspects of what I do.”

The program at Encore will also feature keyboardist Justin Dillard and vocalist Tammy McCann, named 2020 Chicagoan of the Year in Jazz.

“We are talking about doing 'Come Sunday' for Duke [Ellington] and we’re working on a couple of Cole Porter things and Gershwin things, but they’re going to be from our unique instrumentation,” El’Zabar said.

The theme is the Great American Songbook and El’Zabar has a broader vision of that idea.

“If we think about the 1920s and the description that anthropologists and historians gauge that age all over the world it’s defined as The Jazz Age and not just because of the music but it's because of the automobile, because of the architecture, the evolution of women’s clothing, the vote for women, the skyscraper, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the paintings of Miro and Picasso represented hope and freedom. Jazz is the canon for that opportunity,” he said. “When I think of the great American songbook, I look at the cacophony being brought into a vessel of inspiration, so first for me, the American songbook is inspiration. These songs are endearing at times, but they are very intelligent. A lot of people don’t know that a lot of those songs were inspired by the vernacular of jazz.”

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble exploring "The Modern Exploration of the American Songbook" runs for two performances at 7:30 pm on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 3-4. For tickets, visit, call 734-268-6200 or go in person to the Encore Musical Theatre Company, 7714 Ann Arbor Street, Dexter. Box office hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 am to noon and two hours before the performances.

➥ "Musical theater met Kahil El’Zabar & Co.'s jazz in perfect harmony at Encore" [Pulp, February 22, 2022]
➥ "Get H.I.P. with Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble at Kerrytown Concert House" [Pulp, February 24, 2017]