Internationally renowned percussionist and composer Kahil El’Zabar is considered one of the most prolific jazz innovators of his generation. Indeed El’Zabar is a true “Renaissance Man,” with a musical style and content that flows from ancient Africa to the modern world. In his own words, “The spirit of one’s approach comes first before the technical. All the facility in the world with nothing that comes from the heart doesn’t make good music. The basis of the strength of any artistic evolution has come from ethnicity.”
Even though he is fully grounded in the history and music of his African American community, he has taken his studies deeper, ingeniously incorporating African music and instrumentation, producing a unique and wonderfully engaging sound. He credits his community with providing some direction towards African sensibility. “I grew up in a period when African Americans, as a large body, finally started addressing our roots. With African drums there was such an appeal in the way of playing with the hands and the sense of the entire body being involved in the playing of the instrument.” El’Zabar is an accomplished musician with mastery of a variety of instruments, from the elementary – congas, bongos, African drums, shekere, gongs, and trap drums – to the esoteric – balaphon, marimba, sanza, kalimba and berimbau.
Music holds no boundaries for El’Zabar, who has not only played alongside a myriad of jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderly, but was in the bands of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone (who he also designed clothes for) and Paul Simon, as well as recording with rock bands like Sonia Dada and Poi Dog Pondering and heading up the jazz/house outfit, JUBA Collective.
Kahil El’Zabar was born in Chicago, on November 11, 1953. One of three children growing up in a South Side neighborhood where he heard music in the streets everyday – doo-wop, r&b, gospel, blues and jazz. After attending Catholic schools in Chicago, El’Zabar went to Kennedy-King College and later to Malcolm X and Lake Forest colleges. In 1973 while attending Lake Forest college, El’Zabar was given the opportunity to study mime with Marcel Marceau in Paris, but instead opted to use the money to attend the University of Ghana and study African music firsthand.
At the age of eighteen, he joined Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and by 1975 he was chairman of the organization. During the early 1970s, El’Zabar formed his own musical group, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, and later another group, the Ritual Trio, with both of which he still performs. His talents have also extended to the cinematic arena, scoring and appearing in three feature films – “Love Jones” (New Line), “Mo’ Money” (Columbia Pictures) and “How U Like Me Now” (Universal Pictures), costarring in the feature film “Savannah”, and starring in two independent films – “So Low But Not Alone,” and “The Last Set.” El’Zabar was chosen to do the arranging for the stage performances of The Lion King, he has published a book of poetry, Mis’taken Brilliance and he tailors clothing both for his band and for others. From 1996 to 1999, El’Zabar organized Traffic at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, an inter-arts program featuring music and poetry. In 1991, El’Zabar was commissioned by Germany’s Leverkusen Jazz Festival to present a 20 year retrospective of his work, which showcased Orchestra Infinity – a 25-piece big band formed several years ago.
El’Zabar has served as an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has been on the boards of several organizations, including serving as the chairman of The Sun Drummer, an African American drum society, the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, the National Task Force of Arts Presenting in Education, Campaign for Freedom of Expression, Forum for the Evolution of Progressive Arts, Chicago Blues Museum and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. He has also served as a panelist for the NEA’s Commissioning and Interdisciplinary Programs. His efforts as a musician, educator, and community leader led to his being named “Chicagoan of the year” in 2004 by the Chicago Tribune.
El’Zabar lives in Chicago. He has six children.