Jerusalem to San Francisco and back, to the bar

The Hoodna Orchestra brings its infectious rhythms to venues throughout Israel.

Hoodna Orchestra  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hoodna Orchestra
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There’s nothing like a large free-flowing ensemble to get the vibes levels soaring, the toes tapping, and even the hips shaking. The Hoodna Orchestra caters to all the above, and then some.
The 12-piece troupe has been pumping out infectious rhythms and ear-catching tunes for six years now, putting out an album, a bunch of singles, appearing up and down the country, and making the odd foray to foreign climes. Hoodna’s sophomore release, Ofel, is now out and the band is currently crisscrossing the country, with the gig schedule taking in a slot as part of the Manofim Arts Festival in Jerusalem (October 26, 1 p.m. at the Meir Davidov Garage on HaUman Street in Talpiot), as well as shows at the Mitzpe Ramon Jazz Club (November 1), Wunderbar in Haifa (November 22), Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv (November 28), and the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem (December 8).
If you were to try to pigeonhole Hoodna you could, plausibly, categorize what they do as Afro-beat, but they are prone to slip into straight-ahead jazz, blues, funk and several other stripes of African-rooted sounds. That stands to reason if you take into account that you have a dozen musicians on the stage, or in the recording studio, together. At times the personnel lineup rises to 14 and, cultural common denominator or not, there has to be a wide spread of nuances and musical idioms in the collective mix too.
“I’d say that’s right,” notes drummer Rani Birenbaum, who has been with Hoodna since shortly after it was founded. “The vast majority of the players come from a musical background you could associate with jazz.” That, Birenbaum notes, necessarily involves a stylistic continuum that takes the artists along all sorts of unexpected exploratory byways and highways. “In general, people that grow up in this [jazz] tradition tend to experience a sort of epiphany, and develop interests in other areas.”
When you have 12 players with a similar open-ended ethos, you are necessarily going to end up with a multi-stratified sonic offering, full of textures, colors and seasoning that only serve to enrich the ultimate creative offering. “I’m not sure that each member of the band got to African music in the same way,” Birenbaum continues. “Maybe some of them only discovered the music after they joined the group. But you could say it is something most of us share. We are into all sorts of African stuff, mostly groove-based music.”
That sounds like a winner. Groove is a musical ingredient that tends to grab people’s attention, and then gets them, well, grooving.
WHEN AN ARTIST, or band, slips into groove mode, before you know it they have the audience eating out of their hands, naturally in the best sense possible.
While Africa may be the core multi-stratified genre baggage of the Hoodna gang, Birenbaum says there’s lots in there that meets the ear. “We live in era, in a lot of fields, and certainly in the music field, in which we are exposed to such a wide range of cultures. We have reached a point at which we enjoy an almost complete fusion, with a broad stretch of influences.”
That, says the drummer, is particularly true of this part of the world. “I think Israelis, in general not just in music, are especially able to take on different baggage, and adopt them and to use them in quite a natural way. They dive into all kinds of musical traditions and absorb them. We do that pretty impressively.”
All 12 players bring their skills, individual colors and seasoning to the ensemble fray, although listening to Ofel, some appear to stand out more than others. Electric guitarist Ilan Smilan wrote eight of the nine tracks on the new record which also includes a cover of “Breathe” by British electronic music group The Prodigy, so he has major input in the way the album turned out. Baritone saxophonist Elad Gelert’s throaty blowing also leaves his unmissable sonic imprint on the band’s sound. Jerusalem-born Gelert spent several years in New York, honing his jazzy acumen, before returning to Israel a couple of years ago.
Birenbaum hails from Jerusalem and like Gelert also relocated to Tel Aviv after a long sojourn stateside. But, while the reedman was based in New York – which is, after all, the art form’s global epicenter – Birenbaum lived on the other side of the continent in San Francisco. It was love that initially led the drummer westward. “My girlfriend at the time wanted to study at an art school there,” he recalls. Although the relationship proved to be less than enduring, Birenbaum got some valuable long lasting added value from his time on the West Coast. “Unlike some of the others in Hoodna, I didn’t study jazz at high school. In fact, I got into it in San Francisco, when I was 22 or 23.”
Like quite a number of jazz artists of his and earlier generations, Birenbaum was wooed by the peerless textures of one of the pioneers of avant-garde jazz. “A friend played a record of [saxophonist John] Coltrane. It was [the 1964 release] Live at Birdland. His rendition of ‘Afro Blue’ on the record was amazing. It suddenly grabbed me. Before that jazz, for me, had been something you heard in movies. I never thought of it as something I’d want to play myself.”
WHILE IN San Francisco, Birenbaum enhanced and expanded his musical knowledge and sensibilities. “I had this custom of going to Amoeba Music, an enormous record shop there, every couple of weeks, and I’d buy a disc of something I didn’t know.”
It was something of a hit-and-miss pursuit, but one time he hit true and well. “Once I happened to buy a CD by Mulatu Astatke, the founding father of Ethiopian jazz. That was a surprising revelation, and I fell in love with the music very quickly.” He was soon hands on with the genre. “I learned the scales and rhythms of Ethiopian music. That made a difference with how I approached percussion.”
Birenbaum’s West Coast sojourn left an indelible mark on his musical way of thought. “I enjoyed living a different lifestyle there, and I was exposed to a lot of music I didn’t know, as a Jerusalemite,” he laughs. “I got into hip-hop, and country music, bluegrass, Latin and African music.” All of that, and more, find their way into what he does today with the Hoodna Orchestra.
After returning to Israel, Birenbaum made a living from playing in all kinds of setups, blues-based acts and groups that played more traditional forms of jazz, such as Dixieland. Ultimately, however, it was an ostensibly non-musical piece of work that brought him together with the Hoodna troupe.
“A while after I came back to Israel, I found myself owning a bar in Tel Aviv. Some old pals from Jerusalem and I got together and got a pub going in Florentin.” The name of the said watering hole just happened to be Hoodna, and a motley array of artists played there. One day a bunch of musicians who’d book into Hoodna asked Birenbaum to help them find a rehearsal space for the band they were setting up. “That’s how the orchestra started,” says Birenbaum.
“That was the beginning of Hoodna. They played at the bar every Tuesday afternoon for years, and took their name from the bar too.” The guys still meet up every Tuesday, but it is now a morning slot and moved to a new venue about a year ago.
So, when he’s not pouring pints of beer, you can Birenbaum behind his drum set with the rest of the Hoodna clan. “The band is great. We all enjoy working together after all these years, and we keep looking for new stuff. We’ve played with a few Ethiopian musicians and we are always looking for guest artists.” Any takers?
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