Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

This show is available online here (click on individual tracks at right) and on DVD directly from Downtown Music Gallery.

The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble was formed 35 years ago by Kahil El’Zabar.  Their first performance was at the Child City Arts Center in Chicago in 1973.  The goal of the group was to combine concepts of African American music-making with the earlier roots of traditional African music and to make something new. The band is now serving people worldwide with their special brand of 21st century Griot music. 


Lead singer Kahil El’Zabar, who also is an award winning multi-percussionist and composer, is joined by Corey Wilkes and Ernest Dawkins.  Wilkes is a young trumpet titan and Dawkins is a saxophone legend.  Together, these three men are now in the pantheon of jazz history.  Few bands have lasted more than three decades and this illustrious ensemble shows no signs of slowing down.  Their music conjures a spiritual journey to the inner self and spans time through multiple expressions that transcend styles and genres.   


Kahil El’Zabar 


Internationally renowned percussionist and composer Kahil El’Zabar is considered one of the most prolific jazz innovators of his generation.  His musical style and content flows from ancient Africa to the modern world.  Born in Chicago on November 11, 1953, Kahil was one of three children growing up in a South Side neighborhood where he heard music in the streets everyday. 


He attended Catholic schools until college where he went to Kennedy-King College and later to Malcolm-X and Lake Forest colleges.  In 1973, he left Lake Forest College to study African music firsthand at the University of Ghana.  By the age of 18, he had joined Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and by 1975 he had become chairman of the organization.  During this time is when he formed the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and also another group, the Ritual Trio, and he still performs with both groups today. 


Not only is Kahil El’Zabar a great musician, he has also appeared in three feature films, “Love Jones,” “Mo’ Money,” and “How U Like Me Now.”  El’Zabar has also played amongst jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderly.  He was also in the bands of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Paul Simon.  He also designed clothes for Nina Simone and still designs clothes for his band, and others, today.  El’Zabar was chosen to do the arranging for the stage performances of “The Lion King” and has published a book of poetry titled “Mis’taken Brilliance.” 


He has been an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and the University of Illinois at Chicago.  He has also been on the boards of several organizations including The Sun Drummer, an African American drum society.  He was labeled “Chicagoan of the year” in 2004 for his efforts as a musician, educator, and community leader.  Kahil El’Zabar now lives in Chicago and has six children.  


Corey Wilkes


Starting in the school band at the age of 10, Corey Wilkes played trumpet and won many competitions both as a solo performer and in group performances.  He was born June 3, 1979 and was always surrounded by music.  He attended Rich South High School in Illinois and because of his confidence, maturity, hard work, and dedication he picked up a spot in the Illinois All State Honors Jazz Combo.  He was the first student at his school to do this.  Wilkes later attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.  He continued to study the trumpet there under Tiger Okoshi and Charlie Lewis Jr. 


After leaving college, he played trumpet on Carnival Cruise Lines for a short time.  He later traveled to Louisiana, the heart of all Jazz music, and there he played with several different bands and participated in many jam sessions in New Orleans.  Corey has now become an Artist in Residence for the Jazz Institute of Chicago, and also a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. 


He has performed with jazz greats such as Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, James Moody, and Kurt Elling.  He played with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, filling the trumpet seat after Lester Bowie passed in 1999.  He was asked to join the group on a tour of the West Coast in October of 2003 and he received nothing but great reviews for his performance.  Today, Corey soothes souls at renowned clubs and festivals with his sophisticated sound.


Ernest Khabeer Dawkins


Born November 2, 1953, Ernest Dawkins represents the African American culture through his music.  He has a rich background and cultural distinction of African American life.  He is a premium saxophonist from Chicago whose sound reflects his great talent, not only as a musician, but also as a composer.  He has made eleven CD’s and is the founder and leader of his group, New Horizons Ensemble. 


At the young age of twelve, Dawkins started his musical career.  He learned how to play the bass and conga drums.  When he was nineteen, he started to really fall in love with the sound of the saxophone after listening to his father’s jazz recordings of Lester Young.  He knew the alto sax was the instrument he wanted to play when he heard Guido Sinclair.  He went out and bought his first saxophone, clarinet, and flute all for a very low price.  He then taught himself the music scale and started practicing at Washington Park because he couldn’t practice at home.  He got his first lesson from the AACM two weeks later and it is from there that his well-known music career began. 


Dawkins has been teaching music in Chicago’s public schools since 1989.  Before that, he worked with the Urban Gateway’s Educational Performances Program for schools.  He has also worked for the Chicago Park District.  In 1978, New Horizons Ensemble was formed, a group that today still continues to create a sound that combines their unique style of jazz, bebop, swing, and avant garde.  Dawkins has performed with a variety of musical geniuses such as Ramsey Lewis, Lester Bowie, Edward Wilkerson, and Anthony Braxton. 


Dawkins has performed in Maputo Mozambique and appeared on local radio and television programs there.  He has also performed in South Africa with Zina Nggawana in Pretoria and at the Hugh Masekela Club J&B in Johannesburg.  He also is working as a consultant to The Jazz Club De Maputo in Mozambique.  Dawkins has composed music for the documentary “Malcolm” in 1995, directed by Alan Siegal and in 1994 was commissioned to write a three-piece suite honoring Rahsaan Roland Kirk for the King Arts Complex in Ohio. 


He has received numerous awards and grants such as Arts Midwest Meet the Composer Grant in 1992, Apprenticeship Study Grant from The National Endowment for the Arts in 1985-1986, and Talent Scholarship from Governors State University in 1980-1981.   He has a Masters degree in Music Education from Governors State University in Illinois and has also studied music at the Vandercook School of Music and the AACM School of Music.  Currently, Dawkins is serving as Chairman of the AACM, the oldest musicians collective in the United States.