What you can expect when you listen to the Hoodna Orchestra’s newest single on vinyl: everything down to the bead-adorned “shekere” screams Afrojazz. What you might not expect when you see them live at the Red Sea Jazz Festival this August: the culturally-charged West African gourd is actually being played by Jerusalem native Rani Birenbaum, one of the 12 Israeli-born members of the Hoodna Orchestra.
So where does this predominant African influence come from? While on one level, these cultural and stylistic influences can be attributed to the 12-piece ensemble’s musical director, Ilan Smilan, who has collaborated with African and Ethiopian musicians and singers for years, Hoodna’s percussionist Rani Birenbaum offers a more profound observation.
“The deeper you immerse yourself in a genre, the more you start to search for its source. While we are a jazz orchestra by nature, jazz emerged from Africa before making its way to the United States, taking with it those African rhythms and call-and-response work songs that we still hear today.”
Birenbaum, who started playing the drums at age 14, gravitated away from Led Zeppelin and rock & roll after happening upon his first jazz album: Coltrane Live at Birdland.
“I found something so special about [drummer] Elvin Jones when first listening to that album,” Birenbaum says. “Something I just had to be a part of.”
When he moved to Tel Aviv, the young drummer combined his passion for music with a passion for people as co-owner of the Hoodna bar in Florentin. It was in that small neighborhood pub that he met Smilan, the Orchestra’s future frontman.
Birenbaum says, “I was in charge of the bar’s bookings. The groups that came to play in the Hoodna were always very improvisation-based – not just in jazz, they were much more groove-oriented. Over the past years, I got to know a lot of musicians, including Ilan. We’d all play together and eventually, a couple of them approached me about an Afrobeat orchestra project.”
Originally, Birenbaum was brought on as an adviser of sorts, but as the Hoodna bar became the Orchestra’s home base and a primary rehearsal space for the “community of musicians,” the bar owner’s solid technique and presence among the musicians secured him a position in the group.
“When I joined, I was actually playing a series of different percussion instruments, but one of the members was studying Brazilian and African music at the time and introduced me to the shekere,” now Birenbaum’s primary instrument .
While many have come and gone over the five years since the Hoodna Orchestra’s inception, a solid core of musicians remains. Birenbaum narrows down their core success to two key factors: consistency and leadership.
“Right from the start, our foundation relied on a fixed rehearsal every Tuesday morning at 11:00 a.m. sharp.”
As for leadership, he strongly believes that their ability to function as a unit despite having so many individual creative forces comes down to having one musical authority.
“We don’t just get together and try a million ideas all the time. While we all bring ideas to the table, Ilan is in charge of taking them all under consideration and finding the right time to execute the appropriate ones.”
There’s something that can be said for this structured approach. Proof lies in the energy bursting out of any one of the Hoodna Orchestra’s live shows – a contagious energy that usually has the audience up and dancing into the wee hours.
Birenbaum dwells on this magic up on stage: “There’s this moment, where everybody really feels each other and these 12 individuals become one unit... everything clicks. And when we click, the audience feels it. They feed off of our energy and we, in turn, feed off of theirs. These are my favorite moments.”
While the group has drifted slightly from danceable music, they’re still groovier than ever. Only now, they’re not only incorporating Ethio-groove elements in their music, they’re shining the spotlight on the prominent Ethiopian singers that give the genre its flavor.
“There is a whole community of Ethiopians in Israel who came with tons of heritage, culture, and therefore music,” says Birenbaum. “These collaborations are an opportunity for those interested in the origins of the music we play to learn more.”
One such collaboration invited Ethiopian singer Demisu Belete to join the Hoodna Orchestra at the Red Note in the final slot of the Red Sea Jazz Festival.
“We got in touch with Demisu during our last project, where we produced two songs called ‘Yelben’ and ‘Beza.’ He’s a poet and singer and we needed someone to write lyrics in Amharic.”
While on the physical track Demisu’s love song is sung by Tesfaye Negatu, Demisu himself will be featured on the A-side of the Orchestra’s upcoming single in a song called “Alem” (meaning “a world” in Amharic), scheduled to launch during the festival.
In fact, Smilan invited Demisu to Israel for 10 days, during which they will record material, hit up Eilat’s jazz fest, and go on a mini tour to Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine, Tel Aviv’s Teder and a few other venues.
Not only will this be Demisu’s first time touring Israel, but it will be the Hoodna Orchestra’s first time at the Red Sea Jazz Festival as well.
Birenbaum exclaims, “We’re very excited about the invitation. We feel so fortunate. To know that the jazz community embraces and appreciates what we are doing, especially since they’ve only started opening up to world music and different things that are not traditionally ‘jazz’ these past few years.”
The Hoodna Orchestra will be the last group to take the stage on August 24, going on just after midnight.
When asked if he thinks the organizers saved the best for last, Birenbaum responds, “I think that either rightfully so or not, they put us in a time slot that was meant for a party. The late-night party slot is something we’re quite accustomed to. For us, playing at midnight is nothing new.”
Demisu, on the other hand, is “something new.”
“For us and for the people, the Ethiopian singer will surprise everybody. He’s relatively unknown and truly something special. I’m hoping that comes through and the crowd really appreciates him as much as we do.”
Something old, something new. A perfect combination for the 12-piece orchestra that keeps everyone on their toes through cultural diversity, deeply rooted music, and “just a little bit of magic.”
The Hoodna Orchestra performs at the Red Note on August 24 as a part of the Red Sea Jazz Festival. They will also perform at Tel Aviv’s Teder on September 1 and Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine on September 2.