At 6 AM on Saturday, the sun still an hour away, percussionists Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang will start their annual musical seance in the dark of night. By the time they finish later that morning, the sunlight will have escaped the horizon and begun to fill the candelit room; after ten days they'll have completed a winter-solstice drum marathon.
Since 1990, Drake and Zerang have offered two-man concerts to celebrate the winter solstice. With a pair of trap sets, some bells and shakers, and simple Mesopotamian frame drums made of skin stretched over handheld circular frames, like giant tambourines, Drake and Zerang played the first of these concerts at sunset for a group of friends. "But people enjoyed it, so we decided to open it to the public," explains Zerang, a cutting-edge improviser who's perhaps best known for his work as Redmoon Theater's composer-in-residence. Soon they'd added a sunrise performance, and then a second day, not to mention more instruments--the Arabic darabuka, West African djembe, more bells and gongs, and almost anything else that makes sensible noise--to accommodate the demand.
"We wanted to present something for people that didn't necessarily feel connected to the other holidays around this time of year," says Drake, who owes his globe-trotting career to his expertise in both new-jazz and world-music settings, performing most often with saxist Fred Anderson and other AACM stalwarts when in Chicago. Zerang adds that "for many people who don't celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza, it's still a very festive time of year and they're looking to celebrate something. They feel disenfranchised from the season." The timing of the three big holidays coincides with the ancient practice of celebrating the winter solstice, which since the beginning of recorded history has marked the lengthening of days and the march toward spring.
"It's a very fundamental thing involving the rotation of the earth," Zerang points out, "and as friends began to bring friends, we found it was something a lot of different people could get into. We get everyone from free-age spiritualists to people who've been up all night and are just finishing their party." Whatever their inclination, the hushed audiences seem to find themselves caught up in the extramusical concerns Zerang and Drake bring to the music.
"As opposed to a typical recital or club gig," says Zerang, "we design each concert to be one long structured composition, maybe 75 minutes without a break. We use candles, no artificial light, and we move around the space, go to different instrument settings." If that makes them sound a bit like priests invoking timeless spirits, Zerang and Drake have no problem with that interpretation. "I think a lot of musicians are just that--secular priests--whether or not they're doing something attached to a holiday," says Zerang. Adds Drake, "I feel we're bringing a certain energy to the people who are there--and even to the city in general. I see it in the people who come to our concerts, but also in those who for some reason couldn't make it: they still feel uplifted by the very concept."
This year, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of these concerts, the two drummers will perform ten consecutive sunrise shows, each with a different structure. They'll also feature some of the guests who've performed with them over the years--Fred Anderson, flutist Niki Mitchell, percussionist Adam Rudolph, and possibly reedist Douglas Ewart and painter Eric Evans--at selected concerts, creating a sort of "Solstice's Greatest Hits." Zerang and Drake talk of either touring for the next few winters or possibly using the concerts as the foundation for a winter festival of improvised music.
In any case, for the next few years Chicagoans will need to find a different way--other than sitting in a dark, percussion-filled room--of putting the long nights to rest.
Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang will perform at 6 AM each day, December 23 through January 1, at Link's Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield (entrance on Newport); doors open at 5:30 AM. Advance tickets are strongly recommended and are available at Bookworks, 3444 N. Clark (773-871-5318).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.