Percussionist Zerang Embraces Improv

October 17, 2007

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On Thursday nights, a small venue in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood called The Elastic Arts Foundation holds its weekly Improvised Music Series. One musician who's participated is Michael Zerang. The 49-year-old percussionist has been involved in Chicago's experimental music scene for more than two decades. Right now, Zerang is touring the Middle East. It turns out that part of the world has an affinity for this kind of music. Chicago's Public Radio's Tony Sarabia reports.

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Michael Zerang describes himself as a Chicago-born Assyrian percussionist.

His interest in music seems to come from his dad…himself a drummer and owner of a huge eclectic record collection ranging from Louis Armstrong to traditional Middle Easter music. Zerang grew up on the north side…in the Edgewater neighborhood. Aside from hearing music at home…as a kid he would often watch his Cuban friend's older brother play the congas.

ZERANG: The thing that brought me to music as a player, was right when I graduated high school in 1976, I hitch hiked across the country to California, all the way up to Canada and across Canada and back down. But in the first I was gone I was in San Francisco and I went to the Keystone Corners, an old jazz club there to see Rahsaan Roland Kirk. And this is about a year and a half before he died and he had had a stroke. And I heard his music on record before but seeing him live was really quite something. I like to tell people it changed my DNA. And I walked out of there that night and ever since then I've been a musician.

Since that encounter just over 30 years ago…Zerang has thrown himself into all aspects of music…from performing to teaching and writing music for theater and dance.About two years ago he befriended a Lebanese trumpet player named Mazen Kerbaj…who was visiting Chicago.

ZERANG: I was so fascinated to find an improvising experimental musician coming from Lebanon. I was really fascinated to meet him. He immediately told me that they'd been doing this festival of experimental music in Beirut and they had done four years already. And I said well it is local and he said yes it's local musicians and then they're bringing in some aritsts from Europe, mostly from France. Mazen Kerbaj and Sharif Sehnaoui are the two people that run this festival called Irtijal, which is the Arabic word for improvisation.

That's a performance from the 2005 festival featuring Zerang and German saxophonist Peter Brotzman. Zerang headed back to Beirut in early 2006 and began work on what would become his latest release Cedarhead, a series of duets that feature Mazin and Sharif, as well as five other Lebanese musicians.

ZERANG: They're all amazing musicians and they all played this experimental impovisational textural stuff that you'd find in tiny back alley clubs in Europe. These people, they're young artists; they're around their early 30's. They were born and raised during the civil war from '75 to '90 and literally when the civil war was over they were 15 and 16 years old and they had lived all their life in it and I think in a lot of different ways; musically and otherwise, that experience of living through a terrrible terrible time, really shaped their aesthetic.

Sounds from the Lebanese civil war era show up in a 15 minute tune on Cedarhead with 27 year old Raed Yassin… taking the lead on electronics and tape.

ZERANG: In this piece what he's doing, he's taking tape, he has all this back log library of audio tape ; from cassettes and 8-tracks and he rubs them across play back heads and he does this in real time and he has a few pedals that affect the sound. But all what you hear on this cut- I'm playing the darbuki and he's rubbing tape against heads. ZERANG: And he's gone to radio stations in Lebanon and found these old archive things that are broadcasts, some of them are propaganda.

And in a way it's kind of terrible but very rich archive of this terrible time in Lebanon's history. Zerang, along with Yassin and a couple of other musicians who appear on Cedarhaed, are touring Beirut, Cairo and Damascus. On November 4, Zerang will be back in Chicago for a performance at the Hyde Park Arts Center marking the one year anniversary of the death of Malachi Ritscher…a long time fixture on Chicago's experimental music scene. Ritscher committed self-immolation to protest the Iraq war.

I'm Tony Sarabia, Chicago Public Radio.