Humans have been observing the winter solstice across cultures and continents for thousands of years. In 1990 two Chicago percussionists, Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang, marked the northern hemisphere’s shortest day with a concert in a dance studio with a view of the el tracks. The idea was to provide a special occasion for a couple dozen friends who might not celebrate the season in any other way. But that concert has grown over the past 25 years into a beloved series of concerts—an annual gathering that transcends Drake and Zerang’s respective social circles and fan bases. For those who come year after year, it has become an anchor, a beacon, and a seasonal tradition in its own right.
Over the decades Zerang, who’s now 57, and Drake, who’s 60, have become internationally respected touring musicians, in demand abroad for much of the year. But every winter since 1990 they’ve returned to Chicago from whatever corner of the globe their itineraries take them in order to convene before sunrise on the morning of the solstice. Their performances usually begin in candlelit semidarkness and end when sunlight streams through the windows. After the drumming stops, the two of them maintain a moment of silence, and then Drake offers a few end-of-the-year observations. The music changes every time, drawing from their backgrounds in improvised music as well as from their studies of percussive practices from around the world. They both use drum kits, frame drums, and other handheld percussion, but each man has a distinct approach; Drake tends to swing more, while Zerang is more likely to sound like a one-man Middle Eastern street parade.
The differences continue in the music they play the rest of the year. Both can include saxophonists Peter Brötzmann and Ken Vandermark on their long lists of collaborators, but Drake has spent a lot of time working in jazz and world-music contexts, perhaps most notably with bassists William Parker and Bill Laswell, while Zerang has played trance music with DRMWPN and Daniel Higgs, free improv with trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and bleak rock with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Zerang has also organized his share of shows: he served on the board of Links Hall (which hosted the solstice concerts through 2012) until it merged with Constellation in 2013, and in the early 2000s he ran a small venue called the Candlestick Maker.
Drake and Zerang’s annual solstice celebration has ranged widely in magnitude: it’s been as modest as a single sunrise concert on December 21 and as ambitious as the ten-morning sequence they booked for their tenth anniversary in 2000. Some years they’ve added sunset and evening concerts, and they’ve occasionally welcomed guests, including trombonist Jeb Bishop, clarinetist Douglas Ewart, and late tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson. For their 25th anniversary, they’re taking over Constellation—the site of the concerts since Links Hall moved there in 2013—for three days and three nights. Each morning from December 21 through 23, Drake and Zerang will greet the sun. The first two nights, they’ll each lead a band; the final night, they’ll sit in with Tatsu Aoki’s Tsukasa Taiko drum troupe, then lead an orchestra assembled from the musicians who’ve played the two previous nights.
For this oral history of the duo’s solstice concerts, I spoke with Drake and Zerang, of course, as well as with five other people with close connections to the series. Performer and educator Zahra Glenda Baker has greeted solstice audiences for more than 20 years; bassist and guimbri player Joshua Abrams has collaborated with both drummers, and he once sat in on a sunrise concert. Cellist, composer, and bandleader Tomeka Reid and drummer Mike Weis, who plays in Zelienople and Kwaidan, have both been attending solstice shows since moving to town (in 2000 and 1995, respectively). And Raymond Salvatore Harmon is an artist and record producer based in London who attended sunrise concerts from 1996 till 2002—that is, every year he lived in Chicago.
Hamid Drake: We wanted to create this environment where people could come, you know—based around drumming, of course. Something that was nondenominational. The solstice is an important time for all people of any religion or race, because it’s about the cycling of the earth itself, and nobody can really claim that. It’s a time of the year when a lot of people are home and visiting, and we wanted to create something that people would enjoy at that particular time, regardless of whatever they might be following. I think it just kind of naturally turned into this continuing event. I don’t think that we planned it at the beginning.
Michael Zerang: It became clear that it was going to be an annual thing. It’s the meaning of this time of year, and it’s great to know that you’re going to land and do this thing for three days.
Drake: The solstice concerts are very environmental. We have all of our stuff. Candle lights. You remember Links Hall—you had the light coming into the room and letting us know in a certain way that it’s getting time to reel it in.
Zahra Glenda Baker: Hamid and I were doing a show together, and he told me about it.
Drake: Zahra and I met years ago when we were working for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Baker: It was maybe the third or fourth year, back when they were doing sunrise and sunset concerts.
Zerang: We did concerts at sunrise and sunset at Links Hall. The reason that we stopped doing the sunset concerts was because the bar downstairs had their jukebox blaring. There’s nothing that can lose the solstice vibe more than some thumping coming up through the floor. When we do the sunrise shows, there’s no thumping coming up through the floor, there’s no noise at all, no traffic. So let’s just do sunrises. Literally that’s why we did it, and I’m really glad. By the tenth anniversary, they were all sunrise shows.
Baker: I went one Friday, and I was so mesmerized that I wanted to come back. Because it was improvised, I wanted to know what the full experience would be. It was very healing, like a revival of the spirit. I was in love with what they were doing. That time or the next year, they asked me to help manage the house. I wanted to keep hearing every performance.
Zerang: She lights the candles—she’s like our mother.
Baker: Aw, that’s sweet! Even though I’m younger than both of them.
Mostly I want to help create a sense of sacred space. We have candles that I place in a circle around the drums. As I light them, I am making prayers for peace. And as people come in, that energy of peace is resonating in the room.
Drake: She welcomes everyone who comes into the space, and also is there right before we go out into the room. There’s always that moment that the three of us have together that makes it very special. The three of us embrace each other and we have a little bit of extra inspiration and energy.
Baker: Usually there’s some playfulness that takes place, and it’s a really warm exchange of energy, where I’m honored to be making way for them. I think they’ve already prayed before I go get them, but usually there are some hugs.
Raymond Salvatore Harmon: The first time I went was in 1996. I’d just moved to Chicago about three months before. I knew almost no one in Chicago, but over the next few years I would come to know a lot of the people in the audiences. I went after that to the winter solstice every year until around 2002. It was a pretty profound spiritual experience, especially that first time. The atmosphere was very solemn and quiet, and it was still dark and very cold out. As things began and the room warmed as the sun came up, it was very much a ritual experience. The candles and the low seating helped that.
Mike Weis: You enter a room lit only by candles arranged in a circle around the drums before dawn. As the performance carries on, the room slowly fills with the light of the rising sun, and the music in the room begins to be accompanied by the sounds of the city waking up outside—the elevated trains increasing in frequency, commuters beginning their day, et cetera.
Joshua Abrams: I think they play together like brothers. It’s very complementary; the solstice events have a heightened stage of ritual to the experience. It’s a feeling of journeying and progressing. As you go through the concert and the dark becomes light, as a listener you go to a different place. Really, they have honed the experience to mark a transition.
Weis: I really look forward to these shows. I like the fact that it’s not an easy task to get there—you have to put a little effort into waking up at 5 AM on possibly the coldest morning of the year!
Drake: One of the hardest things is that first night, hauling out most of our stuff. Most of the time when we were at Links Hall, we were able to put it somewhere—in closets or whatnot. On the first morning we had to take all that stuff up.
Zerang: Three-thirty in the morning on a freezing Wrigleyville street with my tom-toms!
Drake: Constellation is nice because we’re on the ground floor.
Zerang: The music in Constellation and the old Links Hall—they’re two unique places, though they’re somewhat similar in size. Constellation has a higher ceiling, but it doesn’t have a train—it has that overpass. The Links Hall space has windows facing east, so that at least you had the potential for direct sunrise light. Whereas this place has the lights facing the west, but it has glass blocks so when it does get light, it’s not eastern light but it’s really quite amazing. What I liked about Links Hall was that we could do the quietest thing and everyone in the room could hear it without amplification or anything—we had 120 people in the room sometimes, and everyone could hear. I think that happens at Constellation too, because we don’t want to have to mike things and we want to have the full spectrum of dynamics. As long as the space can handle it, I’m very happy.
Tomeka Reid: The sound of the drums really takes you away; it’s like a meditative experience with a bunch of people you don’t know. I’ve tried to go to the concerts each year and to bring others with me. Something about starting your day with that and ultimately ending your year with the experience is amazing and cleansing in a way. It always feels so powerful, like you’re a part of something greater than yourself.
Zerang: What I’m really amazed with is how it’s new people all the time, and younger people.
Drake: It’s great. People bring their kids.
Zerang: Yeah, well, there’s that.
Drake: And their coffee, their mugs, their tea, their pillows, their blankets.
Zerang: I don’t exactly know how that happens, apart from people bringing their kids and their kids grow up. I mean, my daughter Veena—if I were to mark this solstice for me, Veena was born in October of 90, and we did our first one in December of 90. Now I have a 25-year-old daughter who is smart and intelligent and not around and totally grown up—that’s how I can gauge the time.
Drake: And new people have moved to the city also.
Zerang: People like Tomeka Reid. I don’t know if Tomeka had told you, but she was young, she was in Chicago studying, and she saw one of the solstice concerts and said, “I’ve got to move to Chicago!” It’s happened! And now Tomeka is doing all this great stuff—
Drake: Touring the world—
Zerang: Right! I was really happy to hear that from her. She was a young person that came, and just because of the strength and the nature of the event, she saw the whole city as a place to come and work.
Reid: I can’t remember what year I first came, but I think it was 2000. It was definitely in the first year or two of me moving here. I attended the concert with Nikki Mitchell and David Boykin. I was like, “Six AM, for real? Ha!” But when I got there, it was so amazing! Sitting there in the old Links Hall, I remember thinking, “How’s this gonna work?” The Red Line is passing by, and you can hear it loud and clear. But the minute they started, somehow the train sounds melted away and you just heard the sound of the drums. When the sun had risen and the concert was over, the train sounds reemerged. It was really momentous. My first years in Chicago were a little rough, and I remember this being one of the things that made me so excited about Chicago and wanting to stay—that and the Harold Washington Library. And my U-Pass!
Weis: I like that you had to buy your tickets at the used bookstore across the street. I always used this opportunity to do a little book shopping. I kind of wish that they still sold tickets this way, but even the solstice shows have become digital.
Zerang: Bob [Roschke] and Ronda [Pilon] at Bookworks, they sold our tickets for us as a favor. Those were definitely two people who were really, really helpful, and there was no gain for them except some more people strolling through their bookstore. It’s a pretty noble profession, bookseller, I’d say.
Abrams: I’ve gone alone, I’ve brought friends, I’ve brought my wife, I’ve gone on both sides of the day by staying up after a gig or getting up early. Each way has its merits. If you’re staying up, hopefully it means you’re having a good time. At a certain point it makes sense to have it be a continuation of the previous night. There’s something special about listening to music at that hour—it’s so unusual and puts me in a different place for receiving the information of the music.
Weis: Hamid concludes each performance with a thoughtful speech. I still remember last year’s message about his call for sharing bodhicitta—the Buddhist act of transferring compassion to other sentient beings and removing the self from its bubble.
Drake: What makes me be a blabbermouth? Nothing is planned out—it’s all pretty much spontaneous. Sometimes it might be inspired by conversations that Michael and I have when we’re in the back room or the side room, whatever you want to call it, before we play. The inspiration just comes to say something, and usually it seems like what comes is right for that particular moment.
Zerang: Twenty-five sounds like a lot, but it’s not that much. We both are healthy and able to go do it, and there’s no reason not to until we can’t for whatever reason. I did have this ridiculous fantasy that this year we would do the three morning shows, and then the evenings, and make a special thing out of it. It would be the 25th annual winter solstice celebration—and the first annual winter solstice festival of the arts! I backed off on that one a little bit when I realized how much work that would be, but it’s not a bad idea—
Drake: It’s a beautiful idea. We wanted to do something special for our 25th year, so we decided to present concerts in the evenings where we each on two of the nights present a group. Michael will present a group and I will present a group, first night; second night, both of us will present a different group; and what we’re trying to do on the third night is to present a large group project with all of the people who are involved in our group presentations and perhaps all of the other people too. Sort of a Solstice Orchestra, that’s what we’re going to try and do. And then in the morning, of course, we’re going to do our duet concerts.
Weis: My wife and I have been attending these shows together ever since we met in ’97. It’s now part of our holiday tradition, in addition to the midnight screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life at the Music Box, glögg toasting at Simon’s Tavern in Andersonville, and playing hooky from work to wander around downtown. Christmas in Chicago can be a beautiful thing. I’ve had to attend a few of the more recent solstice shows by myself because Michelle had to stay home with our son, and while it’s still a fulfilling experience, it’s just not the same as sharing it with her. I’m looking forward to the time when my son is old enough to attend these concerts with us as a family. I hope these guys carry on for another 20 years. v