Thursday, June 26, 2014

2014 Friends & Family Concert a Great Success

Above: Makela performing our grand finale, Tal Bachman's "She's So High" feat. Deb and Joel, with special guest beatboxer Dani.  See all the songs from our concert on our Youtube channel.

On June 14 Makela held its 2014 Friends & Family Concert, "Makela Not War," at the wonderful Sitar Arts Center in Northwest Washington, D.C.  We performed some of our favorite pieces from our repertoire, including the group's signature song, "Samachti."  We revisited pieces from our archive, like the Beatles' "Because."  And we added some things that were brand new: the Israeli classic "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" (Jerusalem of Gold) and a completely original arrangement of Toto's "Africa."  The Africa arrangement was put together by our then newest member, Ms. Sarah Friedman, dance teacher, alto and Makela jack-of-all-trades (you can find her conducting on your far left in the above video).  We also brought back "Down by the River," an American folk tune of unknown origin popularized by Alison Krauss, and which was new at last year's concert.

A special highlight of the evening was seeing our former member Dani supporting us from the audience.  Dani is a beatboxer extraordinaire and he was an amazing sport when we asked him to come on stage during our finale to provide percussive awesomeness.

Special thanks go to Joel and Deb for making sure the group was musically well-prepared for our biggest concert of the year; to Jenni for coordinating with Sitar and arranging a truly perfect venue for this performance; to Sarah for jumping in full steam as our newest member and taking on arranging, conducting and beatboxing duties in addition to having to learn 15 new songs in a very short period of time; and to Andrew for basically being our one-man AV team and transporter of delicious snacks.

See all our song clips from the concert using our 2014 Friends & Family Concert playlist on Youtube.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Makela Says Goodbye - and Hello

Makela at Dan Ross's last performance with the group, after welcoming its then newest member, Rachel Samuelson.

If you ask any of our current or former members what the second-best thing about Makela is you'll hear a variety of answers: Making great music, feeling connected to Jewish culture, getting a 2 hour fun break at each week's rehearsal, invitations to hob-nob at awesome embassy events and other DC area goings on...

But the number one answer will always be the same: The people.

For all the wonderful things about being located in D.C., like the opportunities we get to perform at events that wouldn't be possible elsewhere and to interact with people from all over the world, being in D.C. can also be tough. People in D.C. are constantly coming and going because of work or other short-term opportunities that are unique to D.C. This means that our members often come and go. New people come, make a unique mark on the group, impact its sound and its culture and then have to say goodbye.

In the past few months we have said goodbye to several members who made a huge impact on the group and on each of our lives. Dan Ross left to attend rabbinical school in Israel. Dan is an extremely cheerful, upbeat guy with an epic bass voice that can make the whole room resonate.  Not only does Dan have the ability to instantly ground a song and add an intensity of rhythm that can set the tone for the whole group, he can also be counted on to create an impact whenever a particular moment requires added emphasis.  There's a point in Emtsa that will forever be known as "Dan's thing." (Watch Emtsa and look for Dan's moment at 3:28)

We also said goodbye to Aviv Sarel, who came to D.C. through her work at the Israeli embassy and recently returned to Israel (where we sincerely hope she's hanging out and singing with Dan!) Aviv's Israeli ties brought a new dimension and internationalism to Makela's Jewish identity, and her cool, laid-back personality made an impression on everybody in the group.  Aviv has a gift for picking music up quickly and she has a low, resonant, bluesy voice that could blend beautifully in several different voice parts to mellow and round out the group's overall sound.

Most recently we said goodbye to Dani Tor, who served for much of his Makela tenure as Makela's president (an honor that now belongs to Emerald Becker).  Dani is the kind of leader who did a lot of work behind the scenes without bringing much attention to all he was doing.  He made it so that the rest of us could just have fun and focus on the music, which was a gift.  Dani is also an incredibly talented beat boxer in addition to having a distinct, crisp, clear singing voice that brought amazing character to his solos and the group's blend (see him sing solo in the first part of the above mentioned Emtsa video and beatbox in the second!)

The group at Dani's last rehearsal - Our newest member, Ilya, is also pictured
We miss all of them very much.  Every member that comes and goes is unique and irreplaceable.

We've also had the pleasure of adding three new singers to Makela's ranks.  While none of them takes the place of a prior member they each bring their own unique personality, style and sound to the group.  The overall dynamic and group tone have changed remarkably with these new additions.  This is one of the most fascinating aspects of being part of a music group, particularly in a cappella - that a music group is a product of a complex formula in which each individual member plays a role.  Change one of the variables and you change the outcome.

Earlier this year we acquired Rachel Samuelson.  Rachel's fun, quirky personality makes her a perfect fit for Makela's culture.  Rachel also boasts a soulful, true female tenor voice that gives the group mid-range resonance and also makes her a extremely versatile in her ability to fill out different voice parts.  She quickly picked up the solo in Bright Lights as her voice is an excellent match for this emotional, bluesy rock ballad.

We are also pleased to have been joined by Sarah Muntzing.  Sarah's versatile alto-mezzo voice has a distinct, warm honey tone that rounds out the low end of the upper voice parts.  She also stepped up big time by volunteering to become the group's first ever Booking Coordinator, which has made us more organized and ensured that the group handles our increasing gig opportunities with professionalism.

The group dined together after performing at Ilya's dad's birthday party - here's Rachel, Deb and Sarah from left to right

Finally, our newest addition to the group is Ilya Khazanov.  Ilya is not only a talented bass but a musical jack-of-all-trades with significant instrumental experience, arranging ability and knowledge of music theory.  We are excited to see what he comes up with.  Also of utmost importance, Ilya regularly feeds us.

It's clear that when the composition of the group changes we don't lose a part of the group so much as transform into something new and different.  The only component we are really "missing" at this point is an experienced beat boxer (not that many of us haven't tried with varying comedic results).  A good beat boxer has the power to add additional rhythms, complexity and intensity.  Dani's shoes will be tough to fill because he truly understood how beat boxing is not only a fun talent in its own right but a way of artistically enhancing an entire song through nuance and emphasis - plus he had the physical skill and precision to actually execute his vision.  You can see in the Emtsa video how his beat boxing changes the song.

If you are an experienced beat boxer and are interested in joining Makela (or if you know someone who you think would be a good fit) please check out our audition page and get in touch with us about trying out.  Both male and female beat boxers are welcome and while much of our focus is on Jewish music you do NOT have to be Jewish or speak Hebrew to come sing with us.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Makela honored to perform at Israeli Embassy Celebration

Makela members Becky Strauss and Jenni
Stoff chatting before the event.
Recently Makela had the privilege of performing the U.S. and Israeli national anthems (see the video here) at the Israeli Embassy's Annual Independence Day Celebration.  The event took place at the beautiful Mellon Auditorium near the Capitol Mall. About 1,000 people were in attendance.  Speakers included Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren and the Honorable Nancy Pelosi.

"I have to say, it was really cool to be doing our national anthem three feet from Minority Leader Pelosi.  I was so happy we got to be part of such an unforgettable ceremony." -- Makela member Noah Mamber

Yom Ha'atzmaut commemorates the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Israel's Chief Rabbinate has declared Yom Ha'atzmaut an official Jewish holiday and it is celebrated around the world.  A large yearly celebration in Jerusalem includes the ceremonial lighting of twelve torches representing the twelve tribes of Israel.  There was a strong international presence among the attendees at the embassy event, including political and military leaders from many different countries, Israel and the U.S. 

Members Emily Spreiser, Emerald Becker, Noah Mamber
and Becky Strauss enjoying food and libations before our performance.
The venue was fantastic.  It was a gorgeous, Baroque style space with lots of natural lighting.  Guests enjoyed Mediterranean fare including dolmas, hummus, chocolate covered halva and pastas and salads made with flavorful olive oil. The event also featured a selection of Israeli wines.  Overall the atmosphere was friendly, festive and proud.  We were thrilled to be a part of it.

From a music and performance perspective we were also thrilled.  The stage setup was beautiful, and so were the backstage accommodations.  We enjoyed having the opportunity to work with a sound technician before the event to make sure that our music would be balanced and heard correctly throughout the large space.  During the performance itself our audience was appreciative and attentive.  We even heard some audience members singing along to our rendition of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.  Audience engagement is always very encouraging, especially at an event that isn't really a concert but an interactive ceremony where individuals come together in shared appreciation for something they love.

The stage was beautifully lit and adorned.

All in all, this event was a highly memorable experience and we feel both honored and lucky that we were invited to perform.  It reminds us of how great it is to be in D.C. where events like these take place and how meaningful it is to be part of a global Jewish community that is full of vibrant international diversity.
The green room in this case was actually green. 
Makela's members gathered backstage behind a projector
screen to watch Ambassador Oren address the audience.

Jenni Stoff, Emerald Becker and Dan Ross.

Everyone gathered back stage before going on.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Makela's Friends and Family Concert a Big Hit

On March 23 approximately 150 people attended Makela's Friends and Family Concert, titled "Why is this Show Different from all Other Shows?"  The title mirrored one of the traditional four questions that would be asked in a few days time at Passover.

Makela performed its signature blend of Jewish liturgical music, Israeli popular music and American popular music.  This concert we also added American gospel to the mix.  

Below, Makela's cover of "The Chain" by Ingrid Michaelson, featuring Makela member Jenni Stoff:

One of Makela's best features is that we make a point of including all our members equally and giving everyone an opportunity to shine.  This certainly showed during our concert, as nine out of twelve singers who performed had solos.  The three remaining singers are our newest members and solo opportunities haven't arisen since they joined, but they're all very talented and will likely be picking up solos soon.

Joel Singerman and Emerald Becker rocking their duet in Makela's original song, Aliyah L'Regel

The show was held in the social hall at the historic 6th & I Synagogue in downtown D.C.  6th & I was amazing to work with.  The space and stage setup were perfect for our needs, our contacts were gracious and accommodating, and the green room was beautiful.  Everything was set up perfectly when we arrived and it was clear that the people at 6th & I went out of their way to make sure everything went smoothly for us.  We were thrilled with this venue and, based on the feedback we received after the show, so was our audience.

Makela performing a liturgical piece, Samacthi:

After the concert Makela's members and much of our audience stuck around for snacks and refreshments.  It was an opportunity -and a treat- for group members to meet one another's friends and relatives, particularly getting to meet Makela president Daniel Tor's adorable baby girl, who was nothing but smiles throughout the concert.  Later we enjoyed a night out in D.C.'s Chinatown area in celebration of a successful concert and to commemorate all the hard work that went into putting it together.  

Special thanks go to Joel Singerman, our music director, for working to ensure we were prepared and for taking the time to organize and lead extra rehearsals; to Jenni Stoff for locating and securing an amazing venue as well as hosting some of our rehearsals; to Dani Tor, the group's president, for taking care of the administrative aspects of the performance as well as going out of his way to obtain door posters, snacks and refreshments for our audience to enjoy; to Emily Spreiser for drawing the concert poster and managing concert publicity; to Emerald Becker for providing set lists and choreography and making sure that our performance was visually pleasing; to Andrew Gohn for creating finished video clips of all our songs from the concert, and to everyone in the group for the extra work they put in to make sure that the concert was a success.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Makela adds "Down by the River" to its repertoire

Makela recently had "Music Day" - a day for selecting new music to add to our repertoire.  It's always an interesting process to see how musicians select the pieces they will perform.  The music selection process is partly determined by group demographics.  For instance, our a cappella group of 12 individuals can just as easily disqualify a piece written for a 4 person quartet as we would a piece written for an 80 person choir with full orchestra accompaniment.  Since we're a co-ed group, we also steer away from arrangements that are for all male voice parts or all female voice parts.  Even then, however, that leaves literally thousands of songs that were either written with a cappella groups in mind or that can be arranged for a cappella.

We can narrow it down somewhat with the fact that we are a group dedicated to Jewish music - but what does that mean exactly?  Everyone in the group has a somewhat different take on what exactly "Jewish music" is.  Of course this includes traditional Jewish folk songs and liturgical pieces.  But we've also extended that to include secular Israeli or Hebrew music or music written in English about Israel.  Let's not forget that there's a rich wealth of folk music written in the other Jewish languages, Yiddish and Ladino.  And what about secular American music written by Jewish composers like Gershwin, Berlin and Bernstein?  "White Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" were written by Jewish musicians.  The Kennedy Center here in D.C. was opened with Bernstein's "Mass."  Are these Jewish music? 

On top of that, the group doesn't limit itself to only Jewish music.  Sometimes we sing secular pop music because we like it, though we do try to find connections where we can.  For instance, it's easy to see the connection that can be made to George Michael's Faith, one of the songs that we cover.

So how do we pick our music?  The benefit of being a fairly small group is that we can engage in a democratic process for music selection.  Larger groups often don't have that option.  We're also a large enough group, however, that we enjoy a diversity of musical tastes, exposure and philosophies among our members.  So our process for Music Day is simple - everybody brings one or two songs for a kind of show-and-tell, and we vote.

One of the new songs we ended up selecting is "Down to the River to Pray" (also known as "Down by the River" and "Down in the River") as popularized by Alison Krauss.  We will be using our own a cappella arrangement, and there are already numerous versions of the song out there.  Here's Krauss's version:

The song is an American tune.  According to this source, it's a 19th century slave song that became popular as an American folk tune and exists in multiple variations, including variations in title and some of the lyrics.

So why this song?  What makes this a Makela song as opposed to the all the other options out there?  For one, it's gorgeous and we're confident that we can perform this song beautifully.  We are lucky to have strong bases with booming resonance, saccharine sopranos and Earthy tenors and altos that all combine together to create the right vocal blend for a folksy American spiritual.  Compare the above video with this video of the same song, different rendition, by the King's Singers - a renowned British a cappella group.  It's extremely well executed but a totally different angle on the piece (complete with received pronunciation).

We also already have access to a cappella arrangements of this song that we can work from, as opposed to other songs that we also loved but that would have required arranging from the ground up. But these are mainly practical considerations that could have been fulfilled by other selections.

Our choice of "Down by the River" is particularly interesting given that we're a group dedicated to Jewish music but this song makes reference to baptism and contains other Christian elements.  Certainly there are religious concepts that resonate universally, and this song has the added benefit of bringing an interfaith element to our repertoire.  But why this song in particular?

Everyone in our group has different reasons for why they relate to certain songs, and this is no exception.  Makela member Emily Spreiser explains her own very personal reasons for why  "Down by the River" got her vote:  "We already sing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, and a lot of music in Hebrew.  It's important to me, as someone who is both Jewish and American, that we also sing distinctly American music because these two facets of my identity inform one another.  It doesn't have to be 'America the Beautiful,' but just having something that nods in that direction means that our repertoire paints a more holistic picture of who I am and what I'm singing about.  I jumped on the opportunity to vote for this song because I think it achieves that purpose really well."

There's also an argument to be made that American folk spirituals have quite a bit in common with many forms of Jewish music. They have a soulful, bluesy, sung-from-the-gut quality that is also present in the Jewish musical tradition.  This might lead lovers of Jewish music to also naturally enjoy traditional American tunes.

So it makes sense that several Makela members voice a simple aesthetic admiration for folk and spiritual music and enjoy having the opportunity to perform a piece incorporating those genres.  Many of us had already developed an appreciation for versions of this song when Makela's music director, Joel Singerman, nominated it at Music Night.  When several members started singing along as Joel played it for us that may have been a sign.  It's also something different that creates a new challenge for us, a new style and tone to experiment with as we strive to define our sound, our "signature blend" of voices, while also creating a new sound to catch the audience's attention during a performance.

We look forward to sharing our rendition of "Down by the River" soon.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


First of all, a major, massive, mountainous, mega mazel tov is in order for Makela's president and resident beat-boxing expert Daniel Tor, who became a dad last week. 

A second big mazel tov to Emerald Becker who was awarded the upper solo in Aliyah L'Regel, one of the songs in Makela's repertoire.

Emerald is our performance coordinator.  Her versatile voice and powerful breath support enable her sing both soprano and alto voice parts with ease.  Aliyah L'Regel, in which she will be enjoying a solo as well as joining in a duet with music director Joel Singerman, explores a first-time visit to Jerusalem.

Aliyah is the Jewish concept of visiting, returning to, or moving to the holy land, not unlike the pilgrimage concepts in Islam and Christianity.  Following Israeli statehood, Aliyah is known to refer to emigration to Israel.  Aliyah l'regel (transliterated many ways throughout the Internet), by contrast, refers to the ancient tradition of visiting Jerusalem during certain important Jewish holidays.

 The song Aliyah l'Regel is a fresh look at a very old concept.  It has a peppy, happy, syncopated
 rhythm and its lyrics recognize Jerusalem as a modern, bustling city, referencing discos and
 highways.  At the same time, they nod subtly to Jerusalem's ancient history and special historical
significance, as though it's something that isn't always obvious but that's always there.  The two characters  react with a sense of youthful wonderment and enthusiasm.  Of all the songs we sing, Aliyah L'Regel may be the one that does the most storytelling.  It involves two excited travelers pointing things out, experiencing amazing sights for the first time, walking through the city as they sing. 

Joel and Emerald's treatment is light and playful, which serves to render the concept of visiting Jerusalem approachable, a rejuvenating approach given the sense of seriousness that can sometimes surround what many consider to be an austere, biblical responsibility.  It reminds us that, hey, getting back to your roots can be fun, too.

Emerald takes music seriously, but she's not afraid to be goofy when it's called for.  It makes her a fun person to sing with and a fun person to watch.  Her high energy approach to music makes her a perfect fit for Aliyah L'Regel.  Emerald will no doubt show the fun side of of this ancient tradition while acting out the song's imagery.  In her own words, "when you hear each piece separately it sounds kind of cheesy but when all the different pieces come together it works.  You'll see."  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Channukah JCC Performance

Makela was pleased to do a Channukah performance for a Hebrew language group at the JCC on 12/12/12 here in Washington, D.C.

Here's a clip of our signature song, Samachti, that one of member Noah Mamber's friends graciously took for us:

It was a lovely evening.  We got to witness the lighting of the candles and we very much enjoyed the opportunity to eat and mingle with our Hebrew speaking audience after our performance.  Very few of our members actually speak Hebrew, and thus hilarity ensued.

We also had the pleasure of making one of those of unexpected discoveries that occur when you explore a big city like Washington.  The JCC is situated in a beautiful, classical old building with a gorgeous checkerboard-floored lobby.  We needed a vacant space in which to rehearse before our performance, but the JCC being the busy hub of Jewish life that it is, all the rooms were in use.  Finally we stumbled into the lobby and discovered AMAZING ACOUSTICS.  Dan articulated what we were all thinking when he asked, "Can we rehearse here every week?"

That experience prompted a spontaneous video recording of our song Zion, which we performed in circle formation to take advantage of that incredible space.  It was filmed on a regular old point-and-shoot camera and the sound is still beautiful.  And Deb's solo work is absolutely brilliant.

Enjoy the full Zion recording here, on our Youtube chanel.