Kahil El’Zabar Credit: Sheldon (Shelly) Levy

Prolific musician Kahil El’Zabar has hardly gone unnoticed, but I wish every music fan knew about this living legend. The son of a drummer, El’Zabar was born Clifton Blackburn in Chicago in 1953, and raised on the city’s south side. He joined the Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) at age 18, and attended Kennedy-King, Malcolm X, and Lake Forest colleges before traveling to Africa in 1973 to study African music at the University of Ghana. In 1975, soon after returning to his hometown, he became the chairman of the AACM, despite his young age. A prodigy known for his playing on congas, bongos, and various other drums, El’Zabar continually learned new instruments, including balafon, marimba, sanza, kalimba, and berimbau. After leaving his position at the AACM in 1976, El’Zabar started the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, and in 1981 they made their album debut with Three Gentlemen From Chikago, which fused traditional African rhythms with avant-garde jazz. (Over the years, the ensemble’s lineup has usually been El’Zabar and two horn players—on that first album, they were saxophonists Edward Wilkerson Jr. and “Light” Henry Huff.) El’Zabar is the long-running group’s only constant member, and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has gone on to release a staggering 15 additional albums. On the most recent, 2019’s Be Known: Ancient/Future/Music, El’Zabar is joined by trumpeter Corey Wilkes, baritone saxophonist Alex Harding, and cellist Ian Maksin to divinely explore the perimeter of Afrocentric spiritual jazz. On the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble’s Bandcamp page, the group say they want “to spark a time in which heightened sensibility and higher consciousness will be universally known.” In a live setting, they’ll surely deliver the soul-stirring goods.   v