The first album by The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble was released in 1981, with Kahil El'Zabar on percussion on vocals, and Ed Wilkerson and 'Light' Henry Huff on saxes. The trio had already performed at festivals and concerts many years before that.
Most of their initial albums were live performances (Bologna, Helsinki, Stockholm, ...). Henry Huff was replaced by Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre on sax, who was in turn succeeded by Joseph Bowie on trombone in the eighties. A new iteration of the trio came with the arrival of Khabeer Ernest Dawkins on saxes and Corey Wilkes on trumpet, with the occasional presence of Fareed Haque on guitar.
On this album we have Kahil El’Zabar on vocals, thumb piano, drums and percussion, Corey Wilkes on trumpet, Alex Harding on baritone sax, and Ian Maksin on cello.
Despite the many changes in line-up over the years, the ensemble's music has not changed at all. Even if some of the tracks have different names, many of the tunes can be recognised. Some of the Ethnic Hertigage Ensemble 'hits' are of course also performed, such as the funky "Freedom Jazz Dance", originally composed by Eddie Harris, and in the meantime a kind of signature tune for this band.
Other tunes include the beautiful Freddie Hubbard composition, "Little Sunflower", and some old and new compositions such as "Black Is Back", "Wish I Knew", "Ntozake". Whatever theme they touch, and in whatever decade they performed the music, is almost irrelevant. Their sound is still so grooving, bopping and dancing that it is among the most infectious music you can find. El'Zabar has the incredible strength to draw any audience inside his music and make them part of it, which explains why many of his albums are live performances. Not many jazz bands are as welcoming as this one.
As the band's title tells us, this music is deeply rooted in the African heritage of the musicians, with clear references to the blues, but also to - especially - South African music and jazz. It is their deliberate intention to raise consciousness and to bring us to a higher spiritual level, one that is more universal than the boundaries we draw to define and protect ourselves. And they succeed. It's really hard not to like this music, and even the fact that there has been hardly any change of sound and approach over the last fourty years is not necessarily a negative, because you can recognise El'Zabar's music right away. He is a wonderful percussionist, and the collaboration with Wilkes and Harding is absolutely seamless, as well as with Maksin whose plucked bass lines on the cello add to the boppish feel.
In short, this music is festive, joyful, celebrating music and life, even if it can be very sad too at moments. On the last track, "Ooof", Wilkes delivers possibly one of the most bluesy trumpet pieces I've heard since the Trumpet Kings performance at Montreux in 1975.
If there is a downside to be mentioned, it is that some tracks are cut short, reducing the full power of the improvisations, and taking away the reaction of the audience at the end. I know, El'Zabar can go on for hours, but that's part of the fun. There is no reason to stop, and it's only by listening to maddening rhythms for a very long time that you can really appreciate the full power of this trance-inducing music. Switch on the repeat button.
Listen and download from Bandcamp.