Having been given the gift of Archie Shepp (who hasn't been on record in years) and Pharoah Sanders, Kahil El'Zabar is a Roadshow superhero. I am honored to bring to you the honorable Kahil El'Zabar, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
KAHIL EL'ZABAR: It was definitely a passion based on being influenced by older musicians that I have a lot of respect for, the way they lived and the music that they played and so as a child, I was able to see folks like Gene Ammons and the Freeman brothers, George and Von. Roland Kirk lived here at that time. Yusef Lateef lived in Chicago at that time. Eddie Harris lived in Chicago, Herbie Hancock, all my older peers in the AACM, Jarman, Favors, you name it. And to see so many great musicians and the personas that inspired me, the way of life that I wanted to live. I also had an uncle, who had played with Bird and Fats Navarro and between him and my father, they took me to all the cats when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. I went on the road when I was sixteen and by the time I was seventeen, I was in Europe hanging with the cats from the Art Ensemble. I was working with Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and then I came back and went to college for a couple of years and then I went to Africa to study. I went back to Europe around '73 and then from then on, I have pretty much been making my living as a musician.
AAJ: Why percussion? Why not pick up a horn?
KE: In the Sixties, you had percussionists like Master Henry Gibson that was playing with Curtis Mayfield and he was pretty much used as melodic accents. When you listen to a lot of Curtis' work after the Impressions, rather than a horn player, he's got Henry Gibson out front on percussions. A lot of people had missed that in the sense of compositional expression. We had a person in Chicago that taught me and Moye from the Art Ensemble and Derf Reklaw that worked with Eddie Harris and works with a lot of folks in the Leimert Park area out in LA. It was an instrument of pride. It was an instrument of leadership. It was people of African decent finally recognizing that there was a beauty and a dignity in African cultural music. I started out playing drums first because my father and my uncle played drums and so that was always in the house, but with the hand percussion, there was a certain sense of leadership that was related to that that I wanted to be part of. So I pursued it and there were a lot of great teachers and a lot of great examples and at that time, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, you could actually make a living doing it. It was kind of interesting, Fred. I came into the music and there were all kind of working opportunities in jazz and rhythm and blues or whatever and by the middle Seventies, I was one of the few percussionists that were out here, especially as a leader.
AAJ: What are the conceptual differences between playing hand percussion and a traditional drum kit?
KE: Well, with a normal drum kit, and I play that as well, we're playing with sticks and the coordination is based on having the left foot do one thing and the right foot another thing, the left hand one thing and the right hand do a different thing and it has contrary motion. With the hand percussion, when it comes to African drums and congas and Latin percussion or whatever, it is using the different parts of the hand in order to accent and bring out the notes, notes that are in the higher range of the instrument, the middle range, and then the lower range of that instrument. It takes a certain physicality that is different than the trap drums because you are playing with your bare hands, whereas with the trap drums, you are playing with the sticks. The other challenge for me was how to create a sound that had the same kind of power in terms of presence that I had with my trap kit and I think that I've been able to do that pretty well.
AAJ: Why did you journey to Africa?
KE: I went to the University of Ghana. I was on an exchange program. I studied with a master ballaphone, which is the predecessor for the marimba and the xylophone. I was studying music as well as philosophy, so the way of life for those people and how that translates into language. While I was there, I realized that my experience in the US was my ethnicity. I was of blues. I was of jazz. I was of funk. I was of gospel. I had played all those musics with great people, predominantly out of Chicago and I wasn't going to try to emulate being of Africa. They would be influences on my work, but my direct influences are Miles and Threadgill, Gene Ammons and Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, Aretha Franklin or whatever. That is how I came up with the idea of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble before the Ritual Trio.
AAJ: What made the strongest impression upon you during your time in Africa?
KE: The honesty, that in terms of people being able to come closer together, eye contact, hand contact, telepathy that seemed to exist in everyday of life and how that translated into music because music was a way of life. It wasn't just something that you get paid to do, but it had utility in every day of your life. The most important thing was the real truth in accepting life in its purist sense and then learning to express that through art.