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Kahil El'Zabar

Maker interview details

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  • February 28, 2022
  • April 5, 2003


  • Category: MusicMakers
  • Occupation(s): Jazz Percussionist


  • Born: November 11, 1953
  • Birth Location: Chicago, Illinois


  • Favorite Color: Purple
  • Favorite Food: Brown Rice
  • Favorite Vacation Spot: Paris, France, Accra, Ghana

Favorite Quote

"You dig?"
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Musician Kahil El’Zabar was born on November 11, 1953, in Chicago, Illinois, to Gwendolyn and Clifton Blackburn. He attended Kennedy-King and Malcolm X City Colleges of Chicago before enrolling at Lake Forest College, in Lake Forest, Illinois. El’Zabar also studied African music at the University of Ghana.

In 1969, El’Zabar performed with Eugene “Jug” Ammons in St. Louis and Cincinnati. In 1973, he founded the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. El’Zabar also founded Ritual Trio and the Kahil El’Zabar Quartet. He has taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. El’Zabar is the author of the 1993 poetry book Mis Taken Brilliance . In 1997, El’Zabar served as the curator of the Traffic series at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. His fifty-plus album discography includes We Is >> Live At The Bop Shop, Live at the River East Art Center, Big M: A Tribute to Malachi Favors, Ooh Live , among others. El’Zabar is the founder of OOHnow, a cultural e-commerce network established in 2008. He also has served as the artistic director of the Chicago Academy of Music. El’Zabar was the subject of the documentary film Be Known: The Mystery of Kahil El’Zabar, by filmmaker Dwayne Johnson-Cochran. El’Zabar has performed with musicians including Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, and Nina Simone.

El’Zabar joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1970, becoming chair in 1975. In 2002, he was named percussionist of the year by the Jazz Journalists Association. El’Zabar was named the 2006 Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Tribune. In 2008, he became the artist-in-residence of the City of Bordeaux, France, and, in 2014, was knighted by the French government, receiving the Chevalier Medal of Letters. El’Zabar serves on the advisory council of Art Meet DEI.

Kahil El’Zabar lives in Chicago, Illinois. He has eight children.

Kahil El’Zabar was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on April 5, 2003, and February 28, 2022.

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Watch the full interview in the Digital Archive