Winter Solstice Percussion Concerts:12/17/99, 12/22/98, 12/19/97, 12/23/96

12/17/99 | 12/22/98 | 12/19/97 | 12/23/96


Section Three,
Critic’s Choice
December 17, 1999
By John Corbett

Whether powering the Brötzmann Chicago Tentet as that free-jazz jumbo jet gets airborne or entangling themselves in long, loose saxophone lines as two-thirds of a trio with tenor hero Fred Anderson, percussionists Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang have spent the last decade forging an extraordinary understanding of one another-the sort of working friendship in which music has created a deeper kind of communication than conversation ever could. Zerang and Drake have released only one album as a duo, the wondrous Ask the Sun (Okka Disk) in 1996 — a great studio version of their suite dedicated to Edward Blackwell has been sitting in the can for a few years now. But throughout the 90s their annual winter solstice percussion concerts have just about made up for the shortage of recorded material: warm, celebratory, and reflective, they’ve become something of a pilgrimage point, even drawing folks who don’t listen to Drake or Zerang in any other setting. Sometimes the duo plays worked-out pieces, engaging in impossible tandem rhythms on Middle Eastern dumbek and African djembe; sometimes they do without a score, trading solos on trap sets or roving around makeshift percussion stations loaded with bells, scrapers, gongs, and shakers like famished guests at a buffet. Interest in the event has grown steadily, so that what was once a single set now consists of four concerts spread out over a weekend: Saturday at sunset and after dark, and Sundav at dawn and sunset. This year the late show on Saturday is a trio set with flutist Nikki Mitchell featuring a shadowpuppet prelude, The Black Bird, by Redmoon Theater founder Blair Thomas, but the dawn concert has always been my favorite. Advance tickets are required, and can be bought through Bookworks; call 773-871-5318. If you’ve missed the solstice celebrations in the past, now’s the time: the duo plans to close out the series next winter. Saturday, 4 PM and 8 PM, and Sunday, 6:30 AM and 4 PM, Link’s Hall Studio, 3435 N. Sheffield; 773-281-0824.

© Chicago Reader


December 22, 1998
By Bill Meyer, Special to the Tribune

Hanukkah, Christmas, and Ramadan fall nearly on top of each other this December, striking a harmonic note of spirituality. But the winter solstice, which falls on the 21st precedes them all. Humanity has observed it ever since man first learned to read the stars and for the past 8 years drummers Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang have enacted their own tradition by performing concerts intended to provide a year-end ceremony for those who don’t celebrate one on the winter solstice. Drake and Zerang are long-standing members of Chicago’s music community who between them have have played in reggae, rock, theatrical jazz and improvised music.

They are most renowned for playing with local jazz men like Fred Anderson and Ken Vandermark, as well as celebrated international artists like Pharoah Sanders, Mats Gustafsson and Peter Brötzmann. The first concert Saturday at Links Hall, played at sunset, incorporated their shared drum languages into a solemn ritual.

The sound of hand-held gongs preceded the musicians as they walked into a room lit only by the dusky light shining though the windows and a circle of candles.

The performance was a study in dynamics; gong and bell tones established an atmosphere, then waves of vigorous drumming engaged the audience at a physical level.

Finally the duo switched to a hand-held djembe and dumbek to play sustained trance-inducing rhythms.

During the recital Drake chanted prayers in Tibetan, English and Arabic.

When they finished they shared a moment of silence with the audience and Drake briefly related the story of his pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca, from which he’d returned that morning.

The night’s second performance, played under a single spotlight, was more of a concert and less of a ritual. It began where the first one ended; with Drake and Zerang seated and the former describing his experiences in Saudi Arabia. But this time they were joined by multi-instrumentalist and instrument builder Douglas Ewart, who nearly dominated the proceedings.

The drummers beat out dense sound washes and syncopations behind Ewart’s rumbling didgeridoo, flat-pitched clarinet and overblown saxophone.

He tapped out beats of his own on a string drum that he had made from a cross-country ski and played with a drum stick. Ewart also served up a biting and ribald anti-war rap.

Singer Glenda Fairella Baker and storyteller Emily Hooper Lansana, collectively known as In the Spirit, opened the second concert.

Their presentation wove together gospel singing and theatrical narration to relate an African-American folk tale about slavery confounded by love.

© Chicago Tribune


December 19, 1997
Section Three
Critic’s Choice
By John Corbett

We’ve circled the sun six times since Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang first celebrated the winter solstice with an intimate concert in 1990. Their annual event-which has evolved from that single performance of Mesopotamian frame-drum duets into this year’s two-day, four-part international percussion extravaganza-has taken root over a period that’s seen vast changes in Chicago’s jazz community, and Zerang and Drake have been in the thick of those developments. Each flip of the calendar has marked rapid growth in the percussionists’ respective careers: Drake, who was already known in 1990 as one of the most versatile and sensitive drummers in town and had been playing with Gambian kora master Foday Musa Suso, Danish guitarist Pierre Dørge, and the late, great Don Cherry, as in the intervening years acquired a worldwide reputation that increasingly takes him out of Chicago. Anyone with half an ear is out catching him at every available opportunity, before he’s whisked away to live in some more lucrative locale. Zerang, too, has tackled a variety of projects, writing music for numerous successful theatrical events and participating in performance pieces, founding and recording the electric quartet Broken Wire, working extensively with pianist and electronicist Jim Baker, continuing the free trio Liof Munimula, and playing both here and abroad with a smorgasbord of the world’s finest improvisers. Zerang and Drake meet on occasion outside the solstice context-they’ve sandwiched tenor man Fred Anderson and driven vortical big groups fronted by saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. But the rapport they have as a percussion team is truly special, as their debut duo record, Ask the Sun (Okka Disk), amply demonstrates. Spreading out instruments from the Middle East and northern India and Africa, as well as standard jazz kits and various European orchestral objects, the twosome can conjure quite a magical season changing, particularly at the early-morning event-enter in darkness, leave after dawn, go out for breakfast. Saturday night Ehechatl, an Aztec ceremonial dance troupe, opens the show and fred Anderson will join the percussioniss. Because the concerts have become so popular, this year tickets must be purchased in advance from the Bookworks, 2444 N. Clark, 773-871-5318. Saturday, 4 and 8 PM, and Sunday, 6:30 AM and 4 PM, Link’s Hall Studio, 3435 N. Sheffield; 773-281-0824 or 773-871-5318.

© Chicago Reader


Monday, December 23, 1996
Section: Tempo
Column: Arts Watch, Music review

By Achy Obejas, Tribune Staff Writer

When Michael Zerang and Hamid Drake started offering up their solstice percussion concerts at Link’s Hall on Chicago’s North Side six years ago, only about 20 people showed up.

“It was just for friends,” Zerang said. “We figured, who else would want to hear drumming for that long?”

Apparently plenty of folks. Now institutionalized as part of the Link’s Hall annual schedule, the percussion concert has begun to replicate. Instead of one show, it’s now three.

This year, Zerang and Drake offered two afternoon concerts Saturday and Sunday and a 6:30 a.m. dawn show Sunday.

(All three were sold out, an occasion that prompted Drake to apologize to the concert goers for the inconvenience of having to make reservations.)

Beginning at dusk and candle-lit for its duration, Zerang and Drake’s afternoon winter show is reverential in the way that Sufi music is religious. The sounds seek to celebrate, but also to move, to hypnotize, to connect the spiritual and the corporeal. No one danced Saturday afternoon, but no one stayed still either.

Starting with hand-held wooden instruments of Vietnamese origin, Zerang and Drake moved through a circle of instruments: frame drums from Morocco, Afghanistan, Puerto Rico, Azerbaijan; traps; daradukes from the Middle East; djembes from West Africa; congas; a Chinese hammer dulcimer tuned like a Persian santur; and a series of rattles and sticks.

At one point, Drake moved from the traps to the djembe and conga while playing sticks across the floor, never missing a beat.

Surprisingly melodic, Zerang’s and Drake’s sounds moved from teasing and upbeat, to more experimental, jazzier work on the traps, to a resounding sonic collage that borrowed from a variety of global sources, although primarily from the Middle East and Africa.

An extraordinary innovator and embellisher, Zerang, who plays with Broken Wire and a variety of other avant-garde jazz groups, added most of the decoration while Drake, a master drummer whole ads his own groups, provided the heartbeat.

Collaborators in a variety of projects, Zerang and Drake have formed an instinctual partnership in music making. They hardly look at each other, yet are completely connected, as if by an invisible umbilical cord, each feeding the other.

The concert ended with a virtuoso performance on the frame drums, with Zerang and Drake alternating leads over a rolling, urgent beat.

In the only vocalizing of the show, Drake intoned the first chapter of the Koran, in Arabic. When his strong, resonant voice broke over the rhythm, its effect was startling, and joyous.

© Chicago Tribune