by carl wilson

Hey Yo Yo Yo, I Need An Empire To Overthrow


Eye namechecked Zoilus today for tipping their tech-media column off to the recent Radio 3 concertathon, which to be fair other bloggers mentioned as well. (Eye also makes a good point about the concerts' indiecentrism.) But more is afoot at CBC-3, and right now it's looking to be a typical Mother Corp. case of billing a castration as a "streamlining" - the always-tasty weekly web magazine feature reportedly being eliminated, the several related websites being folded into one (which may be okay), and vague bloviations about how they're gonna take up more airwave space, which we will believe when we hear and maybe not even then. Employees are rumoured to be grumbly. More to come.

Final Fantasy Watch: Dear Owenophiles (and Owen), I'll have a mini-review of the Final Fantasy disc (that link's the new website) in tomorrow's Globe & Mail. And I will rock the extenda-mix metacommentary here - although dude has not seen fit to send me a lyric booklet, so at best it will be rife with misquoting, at worst seething with resentment. (In fact I was all ready to be disgruntled that the screamier songs are not on the album, but rumour has it this mortal sin of omission is to be remedied by some upcoming seven-inches. How can you complain if Owen has seven inches?) (Oops! Mmkay! Bye-bye!)

I hadn't understood why this was such an amazing week for live music - in the sluck and muck of mid-February Ontario despond - until I twigged that it was Reading Week. Tonight alone, for instance, T-dotters (other than me, stuck in my cubicle) can choose between the Soweto Gospel Choir, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble with Osunlade, Brazilian Girls, Shivaree, The Silt, Alex Lukashevsky/Sandro Perri/Doug Tielli, Hangar 18, Sarah Slean and Jorane, Apostle of Hustle and Kings of Convenience, among others - see the Zoilus calendar for details. Then next week the place goes dead again till spring fling or something. It seems like a good occasion to recycle my old Ethnic Heritage Ensemble piece from back in the '02. I hope it gets your hips bumpin' down to Supermarket to check out the mighty Mister El'Zabar tonight. He deserves it and you do too (poor dears you work so hard!).

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Jazz's bump, howl and moan of history

21 February 2002
The Globe and Mail, R6

If the name has a didactic ring, that's just because the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble started at a time when educating yourself and making great music weren't clashing goals. Kahil El'Zabar is the percussionist and conceptualist behind the Ensemble, which dates back to his return from a sojourn in Ghana in the early seventies. He grew up on the south side of Chicago, a social pressure-cooker that steamed out billows of blues, bebop, gospel and R&B.; By the time he was 16, in 1969, he was playing drums behind the likes of tenor great Gene Ammons, innovative pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, and soul singers like Donny Hathaway. [...]

Abrams was also the founding president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) -- the south-side avant-jazz research-and-development society that gave the world the Art Ensemble of Chicago -- and El'Zabar quickly became a student there. A few years later, at 24, he would be president himself.

The AACM was one of the black arts groups fertilized by the heady mood of self-expression and revolutionary politics of the time, and a keen interest in Africa was de rigueur; often the Art Ensemble drew as much attention for its dashikis and face paint as for its incendiary improvisation. El'Zabar, besides changing his given name from Clifton Blackburn Jr., decided to go to West Africa to study drumming with the teachers of his mentor, Harold "Atu" Murray (now a sometime member of El'Zabar's Ensemble).

The instruments he mastered there -- the sonorous earth-drum and melodic kalimba (thumb-piano), for instance -- would become his most important tools. At the same time, he has said, the Africans pointed him back home.

"Many of the teachers there said my experience in the States was valid in itself. And that's how the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble came about. The lineage of African traditions was passed on in the Western world. And America made a great contribution to the world through jazz, which was informed predominantly by the African-American experience. I wanted my music to have both of those important elements, the traditional African and the elements of my experience growing up in the States. That's why I called it the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble."

Amid the annual rhetorical merry-go-round about Black History Month -- that it's ghettoization, as if the ghettos hadn't existed to begin with; that it lets people ignore these issues the rest of the year, as if they didn't already; or, more insidiously, that it's a revisionist gilding of the lily -- the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble's take is bracingly urgent and clear.

It takes its spiritual tone from tribal music as well as from American gospel, but it's equally informed by Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and gutbucket Chicago blues. The vitality and breadth of black history is in its every bump, howl and moan.

The group was founded as a 13-piece, but El'Zabar quickly pared it down to a trio, where his drums are the stomping legs and the undulating torso and the two horn players -- trombonist Joseph Bowie, best known for his hardbodied dance band Defunkt, and saxophonist Ernest Dawkins -- are the whirling arms.

By going without bass or piano, the EHE shifts the emphasis from chordal changes to rhythmic ones. With the horn players doubling on additional percussion, the beat is the subject and the melody (often built on a short riff) more a running conversational commentary. The feel wouldn't be unfamiliar to fans of Chicago house and other beat-crazy techno music.

El'Zabar's Chicago grit rescues the EHE from the more sanctimonious, New Agey overtones of some Afrocentric jazz, the airy flute-and-rattle stuff that can give conga drums a bad name. His own urban inheritance is as much a part of the story as any borrowed mythos. His tunes alternate meditative titles such as Ancestral Song with juke-joint tags like Papa's Bounce or Loose Pocket.

Also a poet, actor, arranger (he even had a hand in the Broadway version of The Lion King), professor and community arts activist, El'Zabar yields no intellectual ground to anyone in the more cerebral Manhattan scene. But for him, no head without heart, no heart without backbone, no backbone without a growling belly: History never dries out, and it never stays still.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, February 17 at 5:19 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)



Some of us are really concerned about the CBC's approach to the radio3 webmag (didn't I hear something somwhere about how the CBC NEEDS young listeners in order to be relevant? Maybe not . . . ). I've written an open letter to the Corp:

Forward at your leisure.


Posted by fatcitizen on March 6, 2005 2:54 PM



I'm fascinated by this new style of website -- Final Fantasy's, Ninja High School's -- the kind of delirious prankishness of them, and how lo-tech they are, all done up like the giddy websites of 1999.

Posted by Sheila H. on February 18, 2005 4:19 PM



Hiya. just letting you know that i love reading your daily entries. SO much that you've inspired me to put all my websurfing to good use and start something of my own.

*im looking forward to your review of final fantasy

Posted by shawn d on February 17, 2005 7:44 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson