Reviews

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Hot n Heavy [DVD]

Wisdom, rhythm and heat. Call it jazz.


Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

Hot 'n' Heavy

MPAA rating: N/A
Label: Delmark
UK Release Date: 2007-02-26
US Release Date: 2007-02-27
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iTunes

There aren’t many music DVDs from which more enjoyment can be derived in listening to the commentary than to the soundtrack – but for anyone with an interest in the history and ethos of Chicago’s legendary jazz scene, this one comes pretty close.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the music. On the contrary, this latest incarnation of Kahil El’Zabar’s longstanding Ethnic Heritage Ensemble makes some fine contemporary avant-jazz. Saxman Ernest Dawkins plugs right into the heart of the blues even while careening into flights of molten, upper-register expressionism; classically trained guitarist Fareed Haque’s addition to the band takes them into some interesting new territory with his strangely dissonant, Balkan-flavoured approach, fluent fingertip solos and propensity for exploratory technique – at one point sliding his credit card under the strings to create the guitarist’s equivalent of the prepared piano; and 20-something trumpeter Corey Wilkes brings a vibrant energy and fire to this setting that shows exactly how he’s made his way into the hallowed ranks of the Art Ensemble of Chicago at such a young age.

Underneath it all, of course, are the earthy rhythms of El’Zabar himself, providing a pungent, energised framework for every tune. On the opener, ‘Major to Minor’ he turns in a virtuoso hand-rhythm on his trademark ‘earth drum’ - a huge, hand-built drum with a deep, resonant sound that seems to call back over the centuries to the very beginnings of modern music. On ‘MT’ and ‘There is a Place’ he puts forth fragile melodies with the kalimba, or thumb piano, that instantly conjure the both the lofty concept and the gritty reality of Africa, the homeland. On ‘Black as Vera Cruz’ he trances-out with some hip, Latin-tinged hand-drumming. And on the title track he stretches out on the conventional drum kit with verve and power, letting us know, in case we forgot, that he’s a drummer who’s paid his dues on the way up and can probably out-jazz anyone foolish enough to take him on. It’s all powerhouse stuff that reminds forcefully of the central concept behind the Ensemble: to be avant-garde but in the groove – to create music for the feet to dance to and the brain to dwell on, with no contradiction involved.

The show’s also fun to watch, recorded in El’Zabar’s Ascension Loft, his stylish home cum performance space, on a sweltering hot afternoon in front of an intimate crowd of friends and associates. Leaving aside the sometimes slightly distracting and unnecessary ‘effects’ that music DVDs sometimes seem obliged to include, as if anyone who’s taken the trouble to track this film down isn’t already interested enough in the music to be able to do without such trimming - the camera work manages to capture the intimacy of the performance while giving us glimpses of the conceptual and cultural framework these guys inhabit – focusing in on the paintings, sculpture and writing that litter the place and giving us a number of interesting clues as to the musicians’ intentions.

But, if it’s context you’re after, cut straight to the commentary and enjoy the laid-back, warm and wise tones of Kahil El’Zabar as he ruminates on percussion, jazz as an artform, his career, Chicago’s jazz heritage in general and in particular the legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Music – the iconic collective of which he has been a member for three decades, alongside other avant-jazz heroes such as The Art Ensemble, Anthony Braxton and many others. There’s much to love about his rap, and not just the way he liberally sprinkles his pronouncements with beat idioms like “you dig?” – and gets away with not sounding like a jazz cliché - or the infectious chuckle that interrupts his ponderings when a particularly fruity anecdote comes to mind.

Similarly, while it’s fascinating to hear El’Zabar pontificate on how Ethnic Heritage to him is a byword for the modern Afro-American living in an urban setting while maintaining a part of his soul that is forever Uhuru, or how jazz is “a form still to be innovated, with new things to discover,” or how he named his studio the Ascension Loft because he’s “striving for spiritual ascension through music,” these aren’t the main attraction either. No, the greatest gift here is the rare opportunity to eavesdrop on an elder statesman of jazz setting forth his own personal agenda on why the arts, all arts, should be embraced with passion and commitment in order for us all to reach our true potential as spiritual beings, and why the human race owes it to itself to free its mind and transcend the madness of war and terror through devotion to beauty. This is priceless wisdom we’re talking about here.

Play this DVD to today’s elementary school kids, make them study it for three hours a day every day between now and college. Make them swear allegiance to art instead of the flag. Forget your religious instruction, go straight for the earth drum. I guarantee you’ll see a better America born in the space of one generation.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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