Interview with Kahil El Zabar

A cursory glance at the music industry reveals a diverse group of musical styles. Sadly, hardliners are unwilling to cross the boundaries of musical genre, viewing such action as tantamount to treachery.

As a student and musical observer, I face the perplexing question of why so many musical genres exist and why people's tastes vary with such inconsistency. We humans share fundamental perceptions concerning rhythm, pitch, and tonality. Nonetheless, we manage to disagree on how these elements should be employed and what combinations produce a desirable outcome.

Surely we all know people who listen exclusively to opera, rap or anything else with religious fervor. There is a logic behind this. It's the way an undulating bass line can take hold of your senses, it's the ethereal limits a singer's voice can guide you toward, ultimately, it's the way something makes you feel and the pleasure or displeasure that ensues. This emotional response often derives directly from the music, but music is more than the physical properties of amplitude and wavelength. The musician has a unique interpretation or specific approach to how the music should be performed. While this addition may entail absolutely nothing for certain listeners, many believe that its inclusion provides a defining dimension that makes the music a complete art form.

I was recently awarded the opportunity to talk with Kahil El Zabar, whose latest forays include an extended stay in Europe. Kahil exhibits an artistic knowledge that recognizes few boundaries. He claims that in the past music was about being a good musician and the ability to perform in different styles; the stark divisions of today did not exist. Kahil's intimate concern for the music has garnered his reputation as a highly respected musician whose work reflects true art.


AB: You've been doing stuff in Europe recently?

KEZ: Yeah, in Bordeaux in the south of France

AB: And what were you doing exactly?

KEZ: Artist in residence

AB: Artist in residence. At a university?

KEZ: Through the Ministry of Culture and an organization called Musiquse de Nuit which is actually an organization for social engineering

AB: Well I was reading up on you on your background, and you've got a pretty impressive resume. I was reading some of the guys you played with. What was your involvement with guys like Stevie Wonder, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie

KEZ: I was in all of their bands.

AB: How did you get from, playing with guys like Cannonball Adderley and Dizzy Gillespie to playing with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and the whole Avant Garde movement. I mean, some of those guys were pretty straight ahead.

KEZ: Well you know when I was growing up, there weren't so many divisions in the music, it was about being a good musician and developing the skills and the languages to perform in different styles. Today people are much more specific, you know, some guys are really strict so called Be Bop guys, some guys Avant Garde nothing else, some guys R&B and nothing else, you know when you hear my bands, things like Ethnic Heritage, you might hear some R&B influences you might hear some so called Avant Garde influences or straight ahead, that's cause those have been all my experiences and my resume speaks to the caliber of the people I've played with in every area of music, and what they've helped me do through those associations is to develop the skills so that I can work with Ritual Trio or someone can hire me to arrange the music for Elton John's The Lion King which I did

AB: Wow, The Lion King? That's pretty big.

KEZ: Yeah. The Lion King wasn't the movie, I did the play. The movie was something else. But for the play, the director Julie Taymor, I had worked with her before, so they wanted someone who could score on a symphonic level but also someone who could understand west African music, and I went to school in Ghana in West Africa, so I'm one of the few people that can do that so it was kind of hard to get around not hiring me.

AB: When did you go to West Africa and what did you do there?

KEZ: I was going to Lake Forest College, and I had a music major and theater minor, and I was invited to study pantomime with Marcel Marceau in Paris, and I didn't want to do that. And there was an ongoing exchange program that Lake Forest had with that school in Paris. So I wrote to a professor named Nana Nketia, and said I would like to come to Legon in Ghana and study and after corresponding for a few months, it was done, so the money that was used to exchange to go to Paris, I used that money to exchange to go to Ghana.

AB: How long where you there for?

KEZ: Nine months, first time

AB: What other artists do you like listening to nowadays?

KEZ: Oh I always like listening to John Coltrane. I like listening to D'Angelo.

AB: Do you like any young guys in particular?

KEZ: Do you mean jazz guys? D'Angelo is about 24.

AB: Yeah anything really

KEZ: I like Primeridian, a hip-hop group out of Chicago that's pretty political. Intelligent hip hop. I like Roy Hargrove, when he's in town he usually comes to my house to practice. I like Steve Coleman's ideas, you know, I like lots of people. I like Busta Rhyme's use of rhythm, I like Snoop Doggy Dog's use of rhythm. You know I always listen to Sun Ra, I always listen to Louis Armstrong. I'll be hanging with James Brown in about 2 weeks

AB: Ok this may sound kind of trite, but all the things I read about you, it always like you know, Kahil was apart of AACM. Do you see that another movement is evolving now? I mean you were a part of something--do you think that's manifested in younger generations now, and now, music is taking another turn?

KEZ: What I'm watching happen in most forms of popular music, is the need to reconnect with live playing. I think the fascination with the technology has hit a certain plateau, and in rhythm and blues, rock, electronic dance music, they are reconnecting with the idea of live performance and the intimacy of an instrument. I think that the library of sampling has been used to such a degree that there is a need to reassess the idea of improvising, and I'm watching musicians of my generation now find more opportunities to work because the way in which we approach music is extremely exclusive.

AB: Are you saying there should be more live music? I'm not sure I completely understand.

KEZ: I'll see if I can say this more simply. Over the last two decades, the 80's and 90's there's been a lot of music developed synthetically through electronics and so now it seems that most of the groups are going back to playing live. You know rappers have live bands like Roots, groups like REM are back out working and people are enjoying the idea of the alchemy of live performance, and that hadn't been popular for 20 years and it seems to be now on more of an upswing--that experience, and audiences are listening for that and that's jambands and that whole element. The smaller shows. They're playing small venues of 1000 to 2000 seats. People are in need of human contact and I think that's very good.

AB: I heard that you were in Finland recently and met with the Prime Minister?

KEZ: You know, Finland, even though it's a small country, is a pretty progressive community artistically. Even though they're far up near the North Pole, they're pretty abreast of what's happening in contemporary art. So the president of the country invited me there to do an official performance..

AB: Interesting.

KEZ: Yeah you know, FYI, when the AACM had its 30th anniversary, we were invited to the Kremlin in Russia to be awarded and celebrated, the same thing happened in Paris, France. A lot of times, Americans are the last to understand the importance of contributions that are actually made at home. In other parts of the world that don't have that, they don't take it for granted in the same way. So the idea of AACM was the first time there was a grassroots community musicians cooperative in history. And so what happened from that, it translated into an approach of community access to artists, of alternative stimulus, new ways to compose, to play instruments, all of that, and it came out of these guys from the south side of Chicago. The result of that is we've had more people that we've taught that have become so called celebrated musicians than Berklee. So people have found that pretty impressive. The most impressive thing to me, though is that from that organization, there are more than 45 homeowners. We can actually take care of children, send them to college, and with the so called strange music that we do, that supposedly nobody understands, and we're still pretty much unknown by the general public.

AB: You say it was a collective. But what exactly did you guys do. You got together and played obviously but did you have a higher purpose?

KEZ: No we didn't just get together and play. We discussed how to get bank loans for one another, we discussed how to get mortgages, we helped each other get insurance, so it was like things for living. Since no matter what you may feel aesthetically, you still have to eat, wash up, have a house and roof. So we were much more progressive than most organizations, because we dealt with the kinds of substantial elements of living.

AB: I thought it was a strictly musical this was also a social organization as well.

KEZ: Well that's because that's what the critics and academicians have translated but the reality is that we were much more of a social organization. We then, in turn, did music cause that was our passion. And then we taught, we educated. Without the AACM, there would have never been M-Base, Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Smitty Smith, Graham Haynes. It could have never happened. Steve Coleman was our student at the AACM. He translated what we did, and then took it to New York, Brooklyn, and then Branford, and all the guys who were apart of M-Base in the late 80's...

AB: What exactly is M Base?

KEZ: M-Base was an organization started in Brooklyn that had all the young improvisers that now have become major label artists like Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman, Greg Osby with Blue Note, Branford Marsalis, Smitty Smith, the drummer on the Tonight Show, they were all apart of M-Base out of Brooklyn. Steve Coleman started M-Base and Steve Coleman was a student of the AACM. Darryl Jones, the bassist of the Rolling Stones was a student of the AACM. We've pretty much got four decades from Muhal Richard Abrams and Malachi Favors in their seventies to someone like Reggie Nicholson in his 30's and some of these other guys like Aaron Getsu in their teens and twenties.

AB: That's really great. If you look at most pop guys, they came out of nowhere, one hit wonders. There's really no sense of an establishment like AACM and M-Base

KEZ: Yeah you have a few people who really become institutions in pop but the main institution in pop is the commercial recording industry and then the artists are incidental, whereas with us, it's not necessarily about becoming rich because that hasn't happened, or becoming famous. We have notoriety, but I would not necessarily consider ourselves famous. But the idea is we're able to live beyond our 20's. We want to live, we want to be old because life is very precious. So you want to keep going at what you do and get inspiration, and have support, and have long lasting friendships, so as we mature, the idea of the institution for us has a lot more to do with people than the constructs of the industry or academia or any of those things. It's the human being that really creates the institution.

Alejandro Blei worked at Delmark this summer and attends the University of Michigan during the school year. He is currently studying guitar with Bobby Broom. Thanks for your good work Alex.