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Kahil El: Transmigration

John Barron By

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Over the years, master percussionist, composer and bandleader Kahil El'Zabar has become something of an adopted son to the Aquitaine region of France. For two months each year El'Zabar teaches, conducts workshops and leads concerts throughout the region. In the spring of 2005, the Chicago resident traveled to Bordeaux, the capital of Aquitaine, to record his 39-piece Infinity Orchestra during a series of concerts at the National Theater of Bordeaux. The resulting disc, Transmigration, is a monumental musical celebration of multi-cultural optimism in gargantuan proportion.

El'Zabar's compositions, co-arranged by Robert Irving III, are perfectly suited for the extra-large orchestra involved. The orchestral setting creates an enormity of sound that is quite astonishing. The sparse harmonic structures and economical use of melody allows for extended improvised space with effective and thoughtful ensemble passages.

The opening cut, "Soul to Groove, features an incessant hip-hop groove complete with DJ turntable scratching, James Brown inspired guitar riffs, and brilliant bursts of improvised emotion from tenor saxophonist Arnaud Rouanet. The sudden orchestral swells at the end of the piece, create an element of tension that is left unresolved.

The lengthy "Speaking in Tongues features among other things, the only El'Zabar solo on the disc. Twice during the piece, at the beginning and towards the middle, the dynamic percussionist showcases his mastery of the African Balafon. After the drawn-out and carefully developed modal theme, tenor saxophonist Karlis Vanags, trumpeter Piero Pepin, alto saxophonist Benoit Berthe and fifteen year-old clarinetist Jean Dousteyssier contribute heartfelt, brazen solos. The high-energy mood suddenly shifts to meditative and ethereal on the title track. The melancholic orchestral swells underneath the fiery passion of Rouanet's intense tenor explorations have an exhilarating effect.

The funk-laden "Nu Art Claiming Earth is the recording's most ambitious utilization of the full orchestra. El'Zabar commandeers the ensemble with a tight fist; cueing amusingly precise stops and starts. The piece begins with a rap in French by Bindi Mahamat who, with passion, conveys the potential for art and culture to conquer the evils of the modern world. Trombonist Guillaumme Pique plays an intense solo over the growing eruption of sound—a highlight of the disc.

The final cut, "Return of the Lost Tribe, is an updated version of El'Zabar's 1978 composition and showcases inspired solos by alto saxophonist Ernest Dawkins and trombonist Joseph Bowie—both members of El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble.

Overriding themes such as mutual respect and freedom of expression resonate throughout the diverse musical nature of Transmigration. El'Zabar's music speaks in bold terms about the capacity for positive cultural advancement through the arts.


Track Listing: Soul To Groove; Speaking In Tongues; Transmigration; Nu Art Claiming Earth; Return Of The Lost Tribe.

Personnel: Kahil El

Title: Transmigration | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: Delmark Records


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