Over the past the 13 years, the Marsh Dondurma troupe has made plenty of noise, mostly the heartwarming, toe-tapping, hip-shaking kind. The Jerusalem-based band features 16 members and plays a range of styles that include gypsy and jazz, with a little bluesy, funky and ethnic coloring here and there.
It is a beguiling mix that has seen the group tour the world and put out four records in the process. Number five, Open, is now out there for the band’s many faithful followers to groove to. The release will marked by a launch gig at Tel Aviv’s Bascula Saturday night (doors open at 9 p.m. and the show starts at 10 p.m.). The show will be appreciably augmented by a guest appearance by veteran Jerusalemite hip-hopper Shaanan Street.
The troupe members play all sorts of instruments, primarily brass and percussive. There are various saxophones, trumpets, trombones, drums and percussion instruments. But the one that stands out, head and shoulders above the others – literally – is the one Udi Raz slips into. You simply can’t miss a sousaphone, with its curvaceous shape and towering expansive bell. It also emits a delightfully mischievous sounding oompah-oompah texture that provide sumptuous underscoring for the rest of the gang.
The man with the outsized brass piece is 37-year-old Udi Raz, who has been with the group since its inception in 2002. He says he and his pals have paid their dues over the years, and have been doing their alluring rhythmic marching stuff through thick and thin.
Marsh Dondurma was created by percussionist-drummer Dotan Yogev who, during a furlough in New York, was mesmerized by the high-energy, happy-go-lucky output of the Hungry March Band. The latter is a wild and woolly American brass band that began playing the streets of the Big Apple in 1997. Feeding off the earliest form of jazz, the Hungry March Band comprised anything between five and 50 performers, taking in musicians, dancers and baton twirlers, as they wowed the city passersby. As far as Yogev was concerned, they were exactly what he’d been looking for in his life, and he begged them to let him join the act, “even if he only clapped his hands,” Raz recalls. In fact, the Israeli was incorporated as a snare drum player and the die was well and truly cast, for Yogev and subsequently for Raz et al.
The sousaphonist says he and his pals have stuck together through fair weather and foul, and even flourished in the process. “Dotan came back to Israel and he told his friends it was a great shame there was nothing like the Hungry March Band in Jerusalem. It was tough period in Jerusalem back then. It was the time of the Second Intifada – terror attacks, and you never saw a soul downtown after eight in the evening.”
It was really the time for getting out there and marching through the streets of the city with an insouciant-sounding band. “No one in Jerusalem felt like celebrating anything,” observes Raz.
Yogev eventually got a shove in the requisite direction from his girlfriend. “She told him, ‘Stop talking about it and just do it.’” Yogev wasted no time in putting together his very own Jerusalemite marching band. “He got in touch with practically everyone and anyone he knew,” says Raz, who at the time, played tuba. “He contacted his leader from his hiking club who played saxophone, and a few people he didn’t previously know, like me, who he got to through friends of friends.”
AND SO Marsh Dondurma came to be. In double-quick time the band starting strutting its nascent stuff at the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk. “We were a wild and very amateurish group,” chuckles Raz, adding that the ensemble’s debut gig was an unexpected smash hit. “We played at the shuk. I think we knew about five numbers. The response from people at the market was really surprising, at least for me. Stall owners started dancing, a candy seller starting throwing candies around.” One of the candies landed in a strategic place. “About a week after the gig at the shuk I heard a strange sound from my tuba. I out my hand inside the bell and I found a toffee there.”
Yogev, Raz and the rest of the band suddenly discovered they were onto something. “We realized that this wasn’t just about horsing around. We saw the way people reacted in the shuk, and we felt there was something of value in what we were doing.”
Marsh Dondurma hit the streets of Israel and its music venues and began getting people out of the seats and shaking. “People really got into it, and we musicians did, too. After a while we felt we had a sound of our own, our own unique sound.”
The founding played no small part in that. “That was very much down to Dotan’s special leadership,” Raz notes. “He has the abilities and personality to lead a band like us. That takes some doing – 16 people, playing in all kinds of places. I think he made us a one-of-a-kind band, in the whole world.”
Raz says all the members followed a learning curve, on various levels. “I was studying at the Academy of Music [in Jerusalem] at the time, and I began to develop as an arranger, thanks to being in Marsh Dondurma. I think we have all grown, as part of the band, and we have learned from each other. We also competed with each other, in a positive way, and that helped us all progress.”
Over the years Marsh Dondurma has gotten down and dirty with a slew of A-list artists, including stellar rocker Beri Sakharoff, headlining vocalist Shai Tzabari, and internationally acclaimed New York City-based klezmer and world music trumpeter, bandleader and composer Frank London.
Their new EP features five tracks and, true to the band’s collective approach, the numbers were written and arranged by various members. “[The title track] ‘Open’ is the first number Eilon Tushiner, one of our saxophonists, wrote for us,” says Raz. “We all contribute to what we do. ‘Jambo,’ for instance, one of the tracks on the new record, is the first number which was composed by all of us together. It came out of a jam session we had, and there’s a great video clip of it, too.”
As the title possibly infers, Open is clearly aimed at a wider market, and the band is looking to spread its wings across new consumer areas. The album is being released on vinyl by the London-based Kudos Record Company. “We want to get our music and our sound out to as many people as possible, in as many places as possible,” Raz declares.
Judging by the troupe’s success over the past 16 years, and the range of genres worked into Open, including Ethiopian, Arabic and New Orleans vibes, the world appears to be theirs for the taking.For tickets or information about Saturday night’s show, call 055-541-6529 or visit bascula.co.il/calendar.
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