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Jazz percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, a stalwart of Chicago’s AACM collective and leader of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, spent Monday and Tuesday nights at Chief Ike’s Mambo Room in celebration of EHE’s 35th annivesary. Last night was a special celebration, with a drum circle led by El’Zabar broadcast live from the studios of WPFW before the concert. (Both broadcast and concert were sponsored by Transparent Productions.)
Like every drum circle, this one had a certain touchy-feely, we’re-all-in-musical-communion feel; the difference is that El’Zabar’s profound presence and sincerity made it all seem completely natural and real. He insisted that all of the 30 or so participants have sufficient gravitas—when the musicians introduced themselves, a boy about 17 admitted that he wasn’t really a drummer and smirked that he “just be making noise.”
“You mean ‘make rhythms,” El’Zabar corrected. “Because we’re making music here.”
During the drumming, despite the intensity whirling around him (and some fiery players), El’Zabar exuded a serenity that anyone watching would crave.
Not so, the concert afterward.
With El’Zabar rotating between trap set, large hand drums, and thumb piano – which he played shaking his head fiercely, as though connected by electric current to the notes – trumpeter Corey Wilkes and saxophonist Ernest Khabeer Dawkins joined in what can best be compared to a very dark, very secretive religious rite, no doubt helped by the red stage lights and the reflections from the slowly turning disco ball. El’Zabar frequently moaned his way through the pieces, and on the second selection, “Burundi,” the moans became like an incantation, with Dawkins’ alto soon responding with a fevered squall akin to speaking in tongues. Wilkes added a testimony on flugelhorn, playing with force that suggested the sound was resistant to coming out, and he had to push it through—until he suddenly broke into mad swing.
All around me, whether the band was playing familiar standards (“All Blues,” “Cherokee”) or originals (“There Is A Place,” “Mama’s House”), spectators were adding their own vocal embellishments to the performances, shouting rhythmic ad-libs or countering El’Zabar’s meditative groaning. I’m notoriously prickly about audience interruptions, but this time it all seemed right. It all seemed part of the spell the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble was casting.