Kahil El'Zabar has an enduring allegiance to the spoken word, which is not always the case among musicians. The percussionist and bandleader is a published poet and struggled to create a performance space a few years ago, the First Amendment Cafe, for music and verse. As curator of Steppenwolf's interdisciplinary "Traffic" series, he's thrown together musicians and wordsmiths from Amiri Baraka to Sam Shepard to Kurt Vonnegut in often unexpected ways.
El'Zabar has a thing for dance too. He takes to the hoof amid conga and kalimba solos in such bands as the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and Afrocentrix. In the early 80s he started bringing African drummers and avant-garde jazzmen to hip-hop dance clubs around town to play against the synthesized rhythms--an early version of what later became known as "acid jazz."
Tonight he brings these interests--plus a predilection for doing things on a large scale--together in "Juba Now," an event at HotHouse featuring four hip-hop outfits, including the suddenly hot Primeridian and All Natural; DJs Vince Adams, who spins at Art Bar, and Jesse de la Peña; the poetry quartet 5A Performance Ensemble, led by National Poetry Slam champion Reggie Gibson; MCs Malik Yusef and J. Ivy, both practitioners of "rapetry"; and Afrocentrix. El'Zabar hopes that it will set the club scene on its ear--if it doesn't collapse under its own weight first.
"Think of the evening as an audible tapestry that balances dance, listening, and performing at the same time," El'Zabar says, "in the ancient way of presenting all these forms of expression together." That sounds something like opera. "Except that in opera, the audience doesn't get up and dance."
The fortysomething El'Zabar expects that most of the attendees will be less than half his age. "The spoken-word community at this point is very sophisticated; it's cross-generational," he points out. "The audiences are often younger, but they're listening to older poets and readers. They're looking for extensions of what they've been listening and dancing to for the last three to five years." That makes them a perfect target for El'Zabar, who has increasingly preoccupied himself with passing artistic wisdom from his generation to the next. Gangsta rappers need not apply. "The Chicago hip-hop community is different from those in New York and LA. They're speaking to community, to a cleansing, rather than about ego and sex; they see that they can perform a service as communicators. I'm very inspired by it."
El'Zabar hopes this evening will lead to a breakthrough for performers and audience alike. "The most spontaneous people in the clubs today are the record scratchers, who are really improvising, and the freestyle dancers who can respond immediately to those sounds. Now if this could be translated to the rap style itself, and to the instrumentalists who perform hip-hop--in the way that certain dance movements in the 40s mirrored the sophisticated brilliance of bebop--then the possibilities for this music could be boundless." El'Zabar has spent the last several months working with the rappers on the program to incorporate genuine improvisation into their recitations, aiming to integrate music, text, and improv.
"Juba" is a West African word that means "spirit of joy," but El'Zabar also thinks of it as an acronym for Joined Universal Breath Ascending, signifying the synergy he hopes to achieve, starting tonight and continuing in similar shows down the road. Even if it doesn't work out quite that way, it promises to be one hell of a party.
"Juba Now" takes place tonight from 8 till 1:30 at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo (312-362-9707). Admission is $10. --Neil Tesser
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.