Monastery Bulletin

November 9, 2002
By Vanita & Joe Monk

During a long weekend in Wels, Austria to write about the 16th Music Unlimited Festival, we sat down with drummer/percussionist Michael Zerang in a “konditorei” for coffee and cigarettes (“I can order coffee in 17 languages”). Michael described his moment of epiphany, when the healing power of the universe was revealed unto him by a blind, crippled, dying Rahsaan Roland Kirk. We also discussed puppet theater, musical habits and the necessity of change, cultural survival on the periphery of the free market, staying alive on the road and being stuck in an airport with your best friends, and growing up between Louis Armstrong, Middle Eastern darbukas and Cuban congas.

How much are we influenced, enriched, perhaps also limited, by our particular cultural backgrounds?

Since we’re all here in the twenty-first century, it’s so open… I don’t know what it was like fifty years or a hundred years ago, when the things that you were exposed to were just local. Now you can get anywhere on an airplane, you can hear any kind of music, any kind of art. All this has been in my life, from the day I was born, it’s been easy to get in an airplane basically. So just in my family, you know – my parents came from the Middle East, my father was born in Iran and my mother was born in Iraq, but they were both Assyrian. They came to the United States in the mid-fifties. And my father was a drummer… An amateur drummer, but he played the Middle Eastern drums, the darbuka. But also, as soon as he got to the United States he started listening to Louis Armstrong, and this was what we heard in the house when we were little kids: Middle Eastern music, and Louis Armstrong. Because he loved Louis Armstrong. So, this crazy jazz trumpet, and then all the Middle Eastern stuff… And when you’re little kids it’s all the same, you don’t know the difference. And of course then we study our piano lessons, and we get influences of western classical music, and then of course whatever’s on the radio, pop music… And then I would go outside, across the alley of my house, and the people that lived there were Cuban, and my friend – his older brother played congas, Cuban music. So we’d hear that, we’d have the Arabic drumming in my house, and the Cuban drumming in the house across the street, and we were listening to Louis Armstrong, and this is how it started. And then by the time I was 14 or 15 in Chicago, I was listening to Fred Anderson, to AACM…

Sun Ra?

I heard Sun Ra about 40 times. He used to come to Chicago with his group, and he used to play at this one place called the Quiet Night. Maybe I was about 16, 17, 18… During these years, he would come and they’d stay for a week, they’d do a week-long engagement. And then they would go off to tour, and then a month and a half or two months later they’d be back. And of course I’d go all the time. And sometimes it was crazy, I was like one of maybe 15 or 20 people in the audience, staring at a band of 20 people. And he would play Tuesday through Sunday, so I would go almost every night if I could. But my biggest – I wouldn’t say influence, but the reason I started playing music… I didn’t play music until I was 17 years old. This trip, I was hitchhiking, I went to San Francisco and I saw Rahsaan Roland Kirk – and this was 1976, so this is one year before he died. And he had already had his stroke, so…

He could only play one horn at a time!

No, he could still do the multiple horns, he had them fixed somehow so he could just use one hand. But the thing about the concert that moved me so much was – first of all, I was young and open – I’m still open, but I was young and open then! I’d heard him on record of course before that, I knew who he was. But I’d never seen him perform live. And now, here was a situation where – he was paralyzed, half of his body. So when he came out, they helped him out, they put him on a stool, and of course he had all the things hanging from his chest, these big black glasses, and at first, you know, he started playing and of course I was so fascinated by his visual look and what he was doing and all this stuff. But he played this long concert and… I don’t know, there was a certain point in the concert where it became clear to me that what he was doing was such a pure thing. The energy would come into him, and somehow be purified and come back out in a very clear way, in a way that it was a healing thing. What he was doing, he was becoming like a little point in time and space where energy comes in and goes out – very powerful, even though physically he was not powerful. And I can’t remember who was in the band, what tunes they played, any of the particulars. This is what struck me so much – it was so clear by the end of the concert that this was a healing energy, it was a powerful purification, and when I left – literally, when I got up and walked out of the club – I said: that’s what I want to do.

And it wasn’t – it was a very interesting thing, because I didn’t know what to do. Does this mean I become a saxophone player and play three horns? No, not necessarily. But this station where he found himself – of course, in this late stage in life – where the idea is to take energy, purify it and bring it back out… It had to be a healing, powerful thing, a force of good and a force of… Purity, in a way. That, to me, was the idea. That’s what I wanted to do. Now, I didn’t know how to go about it, so the first thing I did was I picked up the darbuka, the dumbek, the Arabic drum, because this is what I knew, what my family, my father played, my brother played. And I picked it up and I started to make – just improvisation. In Chicago I met a musician, a violinist, a very young guy, and he was completely open to improvising, so we’d improvise on violin and darbuka. That sounded sort of like Indian music, even though it really wasn’t. But in any event, I had to figure out a way, or ways, and I’m still trying to figure out ways, to go to that point.

And that’s the only way that I could think of to do it. I also picked up the saxophones, I played alto and baritone saxophone for many years. Of course drums were my first passion. But then also I started to work with dance, I started to work with theater, I started to work with other artists in performing arts. Because I didn’t know what the path was. All I knew was – I have to try everything. If it’s possible. Just to, at least… Even if I just get a small taste of everything. It didn’t really matter in a way. Just like I’m saying, I don’t remember his tunes, I don’t remember who was in his band, I don’t remember all the particulars All I remember was this phenomenon, and so – how you get there, I didn’t know, so I had to try everything. I tried multiple instruments. I started accompanying dance classes, which was very, very instructive for me. I did that for about eight years, and then soon after, I started composing music for dance, and then I started moving into the realm of theater – physical theater, like Jerzy Grotowski, you know, very high impact movement theater – I started working with these people. To open up my perception of – because you know, when we perform, there’s all sorts of different performing arts. And we’re dealing with music, I’m dealing with music right now, but you have dancers, you have people on a stage doing theater, you have, what… Anything that’s performed has really – underneath it, is the same. It’s the same thing, you’re in front of people, it’s a live phenomenon, meaning you try to work with time and space and depth and dimension and all these things in a live setting. There are similarities, and I learned a good deal from working with other art forms, other performing art forms, that I can bring back into music now.

So that was the thing, and to talk to your question… This I think is the same in every culture. There’s certain things that transcend your particular surroundings. And what Roland Kirk was doing on that night that I saw him – this is a phenomenon that can happen anywhere in the world, for any culture, it’s not tied to one culture. Of course he had his roots, his particular roots, his particular cultural surroundings. I mean he was sort of a unique person all the way around, but still… I mean this phenomenon, you can go anywhere in the world and see any kind of performance that does the same thing that he did. I’ve seen Japanese art forms, I’ve seen African art forms, I’ve seen European art forms. That essence, when that happens, that’s a communion, whether it’s a formal performance or if it’s just a tribal performance or whether it’s folk art or high refined fine arts… That essence is crucial, and that’s what I think we’re striving for. Now, I’m playing – you can put me in this category of saying, I play, you know, free improvised music. Okay, I do, but it doesn’t matter. If I was a dancer, if I was a stage actor, if I was a puppeteer, if I was… Anything. This is still the essence. And I’ve always tried to keep that in mind, to understand that. I don’t want to just have an art form that I do that only can be related to by certain roots of people, or certain cultural groups. It should be something that everyone that hears it or sees it should be – try to go to that same place where I went when I saw Roland Kirk. That purifier of energy.

How do you avoid being trapped by your own musical habits? How does an improvising musician define his individuality, develop and refine his technique, without getting stuck in a rut, a routine?

That’s a very important thing, especially with freer music where you’re developing your techniques as you go along, your extended techniques – they change. You always have to be aware that if you find yourself in a place where you’re comfortable and things become easy, as far as certain habits – you have to just be aware of it. And maybe that is by just listening to recordings, or having discussions with people that you’re playing with. And then to take – to do something, to put yourself on the next step. And that could be many things: some very simple things like changing your instrument, or some very complex things like trying to focus your center and your energy in a certain way that you’re more open and more willing to be able to go in different directions, so it’s a more meditative approach. Many different ways, all different ways. Because with improvised music, free music, there’s never – I don’t believe there’s a place you go where – there’s certain musicians I know, classical musicians or even some jazz musicians, there’s a certain thing that happens where they develop their techniques and their approach, and they develop their aesthetic, and then they reach their pinnacle, their level that they feel like: okay, now here I am, I’ve arrived, I can just do this forever. With this free music, it is not the case, it’s almost the opposite, you never arrive. You never get there, and if you do, then you have to do something about it, so you have to move on, otherwise you’re not going to move on. You can do this – you can find something that’s really great and just continue to do it, but then that’s not honest, it’s not going to open up new doors, it’s not going to challenge yourself and the people you’re playing with. So it’s almost the opposite, you have to continually change. Now for me, sometimes it takes – it takes time, certain techniques that I use now, or certain approaches that I have, I mean I’ve been working on for 3, 4, 5 years, they’re developing… As far as being in a rut, and changing… It’s continually changing. And also, because of the nature of some of this free music, where you’re playing with different people all the time, it’s always – for me especially, the last several years, I haven’t been in too many bands. I’ve been in a few bands, the Peter Br√∂tzmann tentet, and the duo with Hamid Drake, and I play with Fred Lonberg-Holm often, in several settings. It’s been a lot of first meetings, and a lot of reunions. And that’s an interesting thing, because you play, you do a set of concerts, you tour for instance with a certain group of musicians, and then you come back to it later, a year later or six months later or two years later, and everyone has – everyone is in such a different place. Because they’re continually developing and continually pushing their personal boundaries further and further. Even in the course of a day. You know, so much changes, you have your fresh energy and your fresh perspective on that day… So it’s continually changing. And I know that in the future, I won’t be playing like I’m playing now. It’s just a part of growing and developing. In a way it’s very natural, it’s a part of life, to grow like this and develop like this. So I don’t really worry about it day to day, about getting stuck in a rut. The nature of the work will take you into different places, and of course, as I said, if you get to one place and you think to yourself: “okay boy I’m a good drummer now I can just go do this all the time”, well, then you’re finished. What about the extra-musical rut of life on the road, hotels, making money and so on? You know, I don’t find it – it’s difficult. I mean it’s difficult physically. I don’t get bored too easily. I mean I can have a book or a magazine or a paper, or I can make a drawing, or I can just sit and stare at the wall and think. That’s fine with me. Anyway, you need this kind of time. As much as being active, you need to be inactive, to balance the two, so you have a reflection period. I don’t mind it so much, I mean aside from – physically, it’s demanding. And it becomes interesting to me that during the course of a given day, when you’re traveling, so much of the day is spent on nonsense, traveling, logistics, getting there, going to the – but then of course there’s the sound check, which is important, if you get a chance to have one! And then of course the performance is the – it’s the holy time, it’s the time where – this is what it’s all for. Even if it’s two hours of your day, the whole day then becomes focused on it. Especially when you’re touring. When you’re home, it’s different because you have all the different things of your life where your phone is ringing and your children are doing this and that… It’s a different thing. But when you’re traveling, in a way, it’s great, because you’re only focused on these two hours. Everything else is just nonsense that we have to deal with, and it’s okay, some people deal with it better than others, but it’s not a problem.

And usually, too, I travel with – I’ve been very fortunate. The musicians that I play with are not only great musicians but they’re great people. So to sit in an airport for nine hours, if you’re stuck there – but you know you’re stuck there with the dearest friends you’ll ever have. What could be – you know, what’s the problem? I feel so privileged, I don’t feel bored, I don’t feel antsy, I feel – this is great, this is a unique experience, even though we’re just stuck in an airport drinking expensive coffee. And then of course there’s the time on the stage. That’s what it’s all about. So, fine. And in a way it’s good because that two hours becomes framed and very special. And when you’re finished, you have all the energy from the concert, and then you get back on the bus or the train, and you do it again, the whole process, and then you find yourself back on the stage, and it’s – yes, this is why we’re doing it. I don’t – I mean, physically, I’ve been on tours that have been kind of long where after a while, after night after night, you’re drained. But even still, what I’ve done – especially I’ve learned it from dance and theater and physical performers, that are even more physical than being a drummer – there’s a way you focus your body, and you focus your mind and you focus your spirit. And it’s a thing that you do before you go on the stage, so all of the nonsense, even if your body is really exhausted, you can have that new energy for that time to do the concert. That’s sort of a discipline that comes in very handy when, especially when you’re exhausted and you’re traveling a lot. You really need to just – quiet, empty yourself, find your center, spiritually but also physically. For me, because I have a physical thing that I do, I need to – I’m not as young as I used to be, I need to stretch my body, I need to focus my energy… And then it’s okay. After the concert, maybe that’s a different story! But again, it’s all about those few hours that you’re on the stage. So everything you need to do, is prepare yourself, in every level, mental, physical and spiritual. That’s important. And I feel, so far I’ve been able to do it without completely getting burned out to the point where that time gets compromised, the stage time gets compromised or I’m just not in – I’m not enjoying it anymore. I haven’t gotten to that stage yet and I don’t think I will. I don’t think I will allow myself. If I get to that point, then I’ll get off of the road for a while. Take a break.

If you can afford to!

But what you can’t afford to do is get on the stage and not be in it. You cannot afford to do that. Otherwise you’re cheating yourself, you’re cheating the musicians you’re playing with, and you’re cheating the audience. And you won’t be – with this kind of music, there’s no middle. You know? So, I mean the economics of it of course are always… Not good! Certainly, there’s certain gigs I take because I have to take them for the economy. But even those gigs – I won’t take any gigs that I don’t put myself into completely. In the United States especially, there’s so little money for being an artist. It’s not just the travel that’s difficult. When you’re back home, I mean when I’m back home, I have to do other things like – pretty much keeping in the realm of music, I teach, I write music as a composer for theater and dance… I’ve been working with puppet theater for the last seven years. I love puppet theater. Nothing is out of bounds in puppet theater. Everything you can do is believable by an audience.

But, talking about the United States – it’s really kind of up to you. You can sink or swim. That’s maybe negative on some levels, on the other hand there’s positivism that comes from it. A lot of stimulation also. Maybe over-stimulation sometimes. But still, if you can deal with it, that’s a good thing. So, in that sense, the cultural environment has a lot of potential. It also has a lot of crass commercialism that is now so rampant that the culture becomes – on the surface it all becomes the same. You go from one town to the next and it’s like a copy, literally it’s a copy, and that can be numbing to people. But always underneath this there’s something else going on, there’s always an undercurrent of creativity and innovation.

How much do you think artists operating within this undercurrent can be a counter-power to the mainstream state of mind?

You know, that’s an interesting question because yes, on the one hand, certainly it is a counter-power, but on the other hand – you know, artists can get crushed just like everyone else. In our work, we’re not dogmatic. I play instrumental music, right? I mean, there’s no hidden message about politics in there.

More about presenting alternative possibilities…

It’s a good way to show an alternative. But who knows how – fine arts in the United States are very marginalized, because we have such a capitalist approach to everything. If it’s not selling, it’s useless. I mean, it’s like that in a large part of the Western World, but especially in the United States it’s the case. So, what I do is very, very much on the periphery of society. And since I’m not dogmatic, since I’m not making a song saying, you know, “throw the bums out,” or making some overt political statement specific to some topic… It’s abstraction, what I’m doing. I mean, certainly you’re right, but I don’t know how – I mean, I feel like there’s that certain energy, a certain vibration that we put, that’s positive, that’s healthy, that’s for humanity. I don’t know how far that reads, though. I mean, I’m not the one to ask about that, you need to ask the people that are perceiving it, if it’s changing the way they look or the way they vote or the way they view the world… I don’t know. I know that there’s so many good musicians and so many good artists in the world, that hopefully that collective force makes for good, a positive thing. This is my great hope, I don’t know how exactly to measure it, to say how effective it is, I don’t know how. I know that I’ll continue to do it because I know that that’s positive, and there’s so much negativity and so much death and destruction and terror – and I will always go against that, in my spirit. And if that comes through the art, great. And I have to think that it will make an impact even if it’s very limited and very small. I mean, right now we played in a festival with a nice big audience, and a lot of people that are interested, and I’ll go back to Chicago and I’ll play Monday night, and there’ll be 15, 20 people there! And that’s cool, I mean I’ll do it. Good people, good times. But I still will feel like this is a very – you know, touching just little bits on the outside. But the idea of course to be a positive force is clear. And you see it in all the music, even the crazy music – sometimes you have music that’s chaotic and violent. I mean, artists certainly need to reflect. Also their societies, so sometimes it’s not so pretty. We talk about the healing power of music, and the healing power of art, and the positive energy… But sometimes in the artwork itself, it’s sometimes very intense, very rough, dangerous, harsh. Because artists are open and vulnerable people. They bring into them what happens around them. You can’t isolate yourself.

© Vanita & Joe Monk [monastery Bullein]