"The music falls somewhere between Africa and the delta. Midway through, Zabar switches to a trap set, the tempo is kicked up and suddenly we are in contemporary Chicago. "
Robert Iannapollo, Cadence, May 1989
Underlying all the concrete musical manifestations of black America you will find two main sources: the African and the Eurasian. From Africa comes the group feeling, the collective music-making, the emphasis on sound and rhythm – echoes of bush schools and community rites. From Eurasian sources come the long solo lines, the emphasis on melody and text – echoes of the bards singing their lengthy epics. These musical heritages impinged when the Jihad of Islam swept Africa in the 8th century and again when the European colonial powers moved into Africa and the Americas in the 15th century, and again when the global music industry moved into every corner of the planet in the 20th century.
When you listen to the music of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble you are getting close to the very core of today's Afro-Euroasian music. All the basic features from Africa and Eurasia are present in the music of this group, and still it is a distinctly unique music. The ethnic heritage of black America has here been filtered through three original musical minds, the master mind being that of Kahil El'Zabar.
The session was recorded before an audience at Fasching Club in Stockholm on May 3rd, 1987. The various titles on the album can be considered as parts of a large open-ended composition starting long before this performance, moving through it, and continuing long after it. A metamorphosis is going on. The musical material is homogenous. The melodic material, that is to say the tonal and rhythmical structures and the way of treating these compositional elements, is consistent throughout the session.
The main source for it all seems to be found in the sound structures produced on the uniquely African instrument named "thumb piano" or "sansa" by 19th century European discoverers, but which has a variety of African names in different languages such as mbira, likembe, kalimba, marimba, kasanzi, agidigbo, etc., mbira being the most commonly used. Most traditional playing of the mbira results in a musical structure that is typical of many kinds of African music
A few musical phrases which each contain a limited number of notes and rhythmic patterns are twisted around and thus constantly form new patterns, much like the components of a kaleidoscope. This process of making music has been named "kaleidophony" and is an essential part of the African heritage. One Afro-American extension of this technique is the riff structure of the swing bands. Riffs are also frequently used in the music on this album.
Another quality of mbira music and many other kinds of African music, is the changing timbre. A wide variety of different pieces of metal, strings of rattling seeds, etc., are fixed to the instrument to make the sound buzz and shift. The way the members of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble treat their instruments reflects this heritage. The timbre is constantly being changed.
The musical phrases are short. Rattles and other percussion instruments are thrown into the sound picture and then suddenly withdrawn. Vocal sounds are used to add greater variety to the timbre. And here it is easy to recognize another heritage from the blues of Chicago's South Side, a music that has always been a part of the life of these three Chicago-based musicians. When Kahil El'Zabar shouts the blues in Loose Pocket he is right in his own backyard.
Another important part of the music of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble is evidenced in solo flights that devolve from a Eurasian background. These are always backed by the other members of the group and all three make quite stunning contributions to the great heritage of jazz solos.
In Papa's Bounce, Edward Wilkerson handles the unusual alto-clarinet in an intensive solo and then shows off a great talking tenor in Loose Pocket. In Ancestral Song he pushes the beat and chews his way towards a climax that is backed by vocal outbursts. In Mamma's House he talks again, ending up with a stream of rapid statements of stature. Wilkerson's extraordinary playing on this album clearly demonstrates that he is one of the greatest reedmen around.
Just as mbira players in Africa usually do, Kahil El'Zabar mixes his mbira solo with vocal sounds towards the end of Papa's Bounce and again at the start of Loose Pocket. Towards the end of Loose Pocket he shows that he is also a major talent in a traditional jazz drumset solo.
Joseph Bowie stands for the mainstream jazz heritage. His solo in Loose Pocket, and indeed the Max Roach-like inflections of Kahil El'Zabar, are full of bop memories. He growls his way through a mass of "jungle sounds" in Ancestral Song that are produced by means of hand-drums, rattles and the tenor sax mouthpiece. This has the effect of making him finally freak out in a wild frenzy in and around the basic melodic material.
He plays rough in Mamma's House, but at the same time produces elegant phrases that remind of oldtimer Vic Dickenson, juxtaposed with magical sounds of air just puffed through the horn.
Together the members of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble play a World Music – a music that draws, directly or indirectly on most of the musical heritages of the world. But unlike the music produced by the transnational music industry it is not a synthetic hybrid music without roots in any single ethnic group.
The music of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble is a music that has grown organically out of the historical experience of blacks in the U.S.A., an experience of how to handle cultural clashes and turn the music of others into your own thing. If men of all heritages could learn to accept and use the culture of strangers without losing their own cultural identity there would be better chance of peace on earth.
1. Papa's Bounce 09:35
2. Loose Pocket 15:15
3. Ancestral Song 13:25
4. Mamma's House 10:39
5. Three and a Half 08:17
6. Kahil's Blues 06:02
Kahil El'Zabar sansa, drums, earth drum, percussion, voice
Edward Wilkerson tenor saxophone, clarinet, percussion
Joseph Bowie trombone, marimba, percussion