Israeli Band, 15 Strong, Offers Brass and Sass

Unafraid to experiment, Marsh Dondurma’s shows reflect an impromptu, communal attitude true to its brass band and jazz approach.

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Marsh Dondurma performs to an enthusiastic crowd at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem. Credit: Rachel Marder.

Amid New Orleans blasts and Middle Eastern melodies exploding from a small elementary school in downtown Jerusalem, Dotan Yogev, a 29-year-old snare percussionist and the leader of Marsh Dondurma, moderates skillfully between differing opinions.

Eleven members are present at the Israeli brass band’s rehearsal, four short of the full slate of 15. Questions are raised regarding a solo. Is it too quiet? Maybe there should be more than one solo at this point. A few thoughts are expressed before a compromise is reached: There will be three distinct solos. Soon the plan has been put into action—and it’s working. Yogev taps his head to cue everyone to return to the infectious riff.

Unafraid to experiment, Marsh Dondurma’s shows reflect this impromptu, communal attitude, true to its brass band and jazz approach. Still, the band maintains control over the direction of its sound. Even when

Yogev leads them into the crowd for a mass dance party, the music remains consistent and jubilant.

The band, whose mouthful of a name is derived from a Turkish ice cream Yogev once came across, is well known on the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv circuit. It isn’t working on an album currently, but you never know when they might be. “We just let the music come in, and hopefully not so far down the road we’re going to look at whatever we have and say, ‘This, this, this and this are good enough and they make something together,’” Yogev says.

Formed six and a half years ago when it put on a show at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, Marsh Dondurma has released three albums—Marsh Dondurma, Teamim Chadashim, and, most recently, Shechuna (Neighborhood), performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2007 and the Red Sea Jazz Festival in 2010, and become known for its blazing street shows and meshing of jazz, funk, Middle Eastern and eastern European styles. It’s not unusual for Marsh Dondurma to dance, use umbrellas as props or join the crowd.

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(Click photo to download. Caption: Udi Raz on the Sousaphone and Dotan Yogev on the snare during a Marsh Dondurma concert at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem. Credit: Rachel Marder.)

Jerusalem sound

Marsh Dondurma may conjure up images of a New Orleans Second Line parade, but it is an Israeli band through and through, with roughly half of its members living in Jerusalem and the other half living in Tel Aviv.

“I think the one thing that defines Marsh Dondurma from other wonderful brass bands around the world is the fact that we live here. And I really, really mean that,” stresses Yogev, a Jerusalem native. “I think that our music, our writing, our way of playing is really, really influenced by this middle eastern, Israeli, Jerusalem mixture of cultures and politics and just social fabric, background or whatever’s going on here. You can really hear that in the songs.”

On Shechuna, for example, the album opens with the song “Your Yemen Side” to the signature sounds of Mahane Yehuda. Meeting Jerusalem crowds and seeing how they respond to the music has really affected the band’s direction.

“We really are influenced from things around the world but we write our music here in this neighborhood, this community,” Yogev says. “The Jerusalem crowd is the thing we play for. As long as they’re here, we’re here.”

Over the years, the band has grown from eight at its first rehearsal to its current 15. Yogev started assembling Marsh Dondurma by calling friends, asking around about a trumpet player here, a sousaphone player there. Most of the band mates have been around since the beginning, with the exception of a few.“We have quite a chunk of history together,” he says. The band now includes three trumpets, two trombones, five saxophones, three percussionists, one Daul (Serbian bass drum) and one sousaphone.

Tent summer

The band does not involve itself in politics, though it did embrace the opportunity to perform at the Rothschild Blvd. tent city this summer. After a concert at Levantine Cultural Center in Tel Aviv one evening, the band decided impromptu to continue the show among the tents, announcing to the crowd it would take to the streets and give an encore on Rothschild.

A rally had taken place that night, so the energy was still high. It may be impossible, and this goes for a person of any age, not to burst into movement the second this band’s sound hits. Marsh Dondurma’s music speaks to the gut. That night, the band’s following started with 10 people and grew to 1,000 at its height.

“The minute you start playing, people start coming,” Yogev says.

Yogev’s background

Yogev started playing the drums in the 5th grade after seeing an older friend playing on a set. “I think in the beginning it was a matter of this is big and shiny,” he recalls. “It was red and beautiful… It was like ‘ahh, wow.”

At the time, Yogev’s father was completing a post doctorate at the University of Missouri. Yogev joined the school marching band to play the snare drum, but when his family moved back to Israel the following year, he didn’t pick up the drums again until 9th grade.

In high school, Yogev threw himself into music. His drum teacher told him he was talented enough to forgo the army and move to the U.S. to pursue his musical passion, but Yogev decided against it. He went to the army, and today juggles medical school at Hebrew University with a full-time music career.  

“It’s very hard. It’s sometimes impossible,” he says of the balancing act, especially during exams or when the band is performing abroad.

Israeli music trends, and beyond

Over the last 10 to 15 years, Yogev says Israeli society has re-embraced the traditional music of different ethnicities, like Mizrahi music, which he says used to be considered low-class and is mainstream today.

“People are way over that,” he says. “In Israel it’s become okay and wonderful to look to where you come from and see what happens there.”

Yogev says artists like Afro-beat jazz band Third World Love are “combining their background, their heritage, and making something new out of it,” and that his band is “trying to do the same thing.”

Lately, the band has been adding to its sound through collaborations. About a month ago, Marsh Dondurma did a couple of shows in Israel with Frank London, a legendary Klezmer trumpet player from New York.

“We put aside working on our new stuff for two long months and we had this wonderful experience of learning somebody else’s music,” he says of working with London. They also did some shows over the summer with Israeli superstar Shlomo Gronich.

But Marsh Dondurma is looking forward to getting back to its own music—now with a few more tricks up its sleeve.

Posted on November 7, 2011 and filed under Arts, Israel.