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Michael Zerang - Cedarhead

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Artist: Michael Zerang

Album: Cedarhead

Label: Al Maslakh

Review date: Jul. 11, 2007

This record has an American’s name on the cover, but it functions as a handy survey of the nascent Lebanese free improv scene, as well as an opportunity to consider Michael Zerang’s diverse musical skills. No other American improviser has gotten so deeply involved with the Lebanese as this Assyrian-American percussionist, an essential figure on Chicago’s improvised music scene since the bleak days of the ’70s and ’80s. Back then there was no Empty Bottle or Hungry Brain or Velvet Lounge, and the only places musicians had to play were the ones they provided themselves. Zerang learned early that you can’t just be a player to play this music, and shouldered the responsibilities of self-organizing venues and engaging with arts institutions in order to keep the music alive.

Zerang’s cognizance of art as an essential force, an expression that can never be taken for granted, probably has a lot to do with the sympathetic connection he’s established with the Lebanese, who deal with basic survival challenges and a difficult but fertile milieu. Their country has a complex, Euro-conscious culture that’s permitted a level of independent thought not available to many other Middle Eastern countries; even so, the nation has struggled in vain to transcend its regional inheritance of internal conflict and foreign intervention.

But Zerang and the Lebanese are also quite musically compatible. He, like guitarists Chabel Haber and Sharif Sehnaoui, saxophonist Christine Sehnaoui, and trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, is especially concerned with extended technique. There are long stretches in Zerang’s duos with those players where it’s hard to tell what instruments are being played, let alone what’s being done to them, and it proves necessary to check the track listing for clues. Is that metallic rattle coming from choked guitar strings, a trumpet played into a biscuit tin through rubber tubes, or a cymbal? More importantly, why do they choose these sounds? All of these musicians renounce the hand dealt to them each time they pick up their instrument, and the act of playing becomes self-determination. “Screw your rules and your game,” the say; “I’m playing my way, and within that way I’m a master.”

And they are. Whether they match drum skin groans to overblown reeds or Sonic Youth-like string swells to tumbling beats, each encounter is a study in thoughtful, flexible, spontaneous engagement.

Zerang is also a long-time student of Middle Eastern music, something that cannot be said for all of his partners here. Only nay (flute) player Bechir Saadé overtly references the sound of music that came before Peter Brötzmann or the Music Improvisation Company. Zerang’s frame drum embroiders Saadé’s probing, mournful lines with elaborate filigree and a sturdy pulse absent from the more outré sounds explored in the aforementioned encounters. And through his work with groups like Liof Munimula and Jumper Cables, Zerang has dealt with electronics for decades; his skin-scouring and dry rattles mesh perfectly with Jassem Hindi’s squiggles and shortwave noise on the penultimate track.

The most exciting moment on Cedarhead comes when these two strands tie together in Zerang’s encounter with Raed Yassin. During Yassin’s recent visit to the USA, he proved himself to be an able bassist, but this track suggests that his greatest skill lies in his work with tape and electronics. Yassin tugs tape over playback heads, obtaining stuttering sound bites with the facility of a hip-hop turntablist. He adroitly mixes snippets of radio broadcasts with synthetic swooshes and whistles to create a dizzying ride, driven by Zerang’s galloping darbekki (a.k.a. darbuka, dumbek, or darabouka). The radio wave travelogue evolves into a splatter-fest of noise cushioned by psychedelic echo effects; solemn voices intrude, a snatch of easy listening music flickers in and out like a promise of peace, then transistorized buzzes rain down like a meteor shower. Played three months before Hamas kidnapped that soldier and Israel bombed Beirut’s airport, plunging the country back into war, Yassin and Zerang foretold all with sound. This music’s survival and distribution is a triumph over the laws of entropy and the gods of war.

By Bill Meyer

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