How do you attract folks to a tiny second-floor space at six o’clock in the morning to bid welcome to Chicago’s harshest and most forbidding meteorological season? If you’re veteran jazzmen Michael Zerang and Hamid Drake, you simply follow the template that’s been drawing crowds to the North Side for the past 21 years—a sometimes raucous, sometimes meditative and wholly improvised performance on dozens of percussion instruments that somehow manages to conjure beauty and warmth despite the frigid darkness outside. Zerang talked to Chicago about his two decades of welcoming winter in this unlikely manner.
What was the initial impetus behind a percussion concert to welcome the Winter Solstice?
We started doing the Winter Solstice concerts initially as just a nice year-end event for our family and friends in 1990. The first year was a low-key, single event affair, but by the second year, there was a line so long that we were beyond the capacity of the space. By the third year, we added performances.
You and Hamid have been doing these concerts for more than twenty years now, and they seem to be getting more popular as time goes by. Why do you think they’ve been such a draw for people (especially at 6:00am)?
This will be our 22nd annual event. I think the reason they are so popular, and even growing in popularity, is because there are many people who feel left out of the festivities during this season. They may not subscribe to the various religious holiday practices. Winter Solstice is a way to gather and celebrate the season and the year’s end without having an association to these other holiday events.
How have the performances evolved over the past couple of decades?
What has stayed the same over all of these years is that we always perform a long, single work that lasts about an hour and twenty minutes, where we move through a wide assortment of percussion instruments from around the world. Since we are always improvising, the way the music plays out is always different, and for us, always changing and evolving as we grow as artists and people.
The 22nd annual Winter Solstice concerts take place on December 21, 22 and 23 at 6:00am at Links Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield #207. Admission is $20. For info: linkshall.org.
Mark Loehrke is a contributing music critic for Chicago magazine.
Photo credit: Esther Cidoncha