The sinister funk on Ofel is perfectly matched by its production.
The Tel Aviv-based instrumental group Hoodna Orchestra defines themselves by their merging of American pop music, said music’s African heritage and global jazz culture. Ofel, their second album, leaves no question in regards to the reality of this connection. The accompanying music seamlessly moves between the sounds of these cultures, both those that are easily identifiable as one or the other and those that are more of a middle point between the lot. The album’s best moments give way to complex, invigorating pieces seemingly melted together from a heaping swathe of music history.
The sinister funk on Ofel is perfectly matched by its production. Like in the music of the Heliocentrics, the smoky, echoing atmosphere that drenches every sound gives the album a seedy warmth, like the most welcoming a night club can be while still maintaining a secretive, dangerous edge. The reedy organ on “Breathe” is powerful enough on its to warrant multiple replays, and the gritty, forceful brass tone throughout is a defining sound of the album. These successes are a product of Hoodna Orchestra’s excellence in both studio technicality and musical performance.
Each member of the 12-person Hoodna Orchestra is an accomplished player in many regards. Their technical ability is omnipresent, their group interplay fluid; most astounding, however, is their easy incorporation of different global touchpoints into the most minor of gestures. The trills and grace notes are drawn from their self-proclaimed Arabic influences, while the complex drumming patterns are in an analogous relationship with their Ethiopian roots. To a Euro-American audience, the scales from which the melodies are constructed might resemble the dramatic soundtracks of Henry Mancini or Ennio Morricone. Despite its obvious reference points, this sound combination does give Ofel a unique flavor, one that mixes chilled-out grooving and riveting, hard-played jazz to great effect.
All of the performative and conceptual strengths of Ofel aren’t always enough to salvage the sometimes lackluster compositions. The rhythmic bases of each track are consistently interesting, but the sweeping horn lines don’t always work as well as they do on the pounding, infectious “Ofel I.” On “Rexico,” the midtempo repetitions lack the punch they need to lift off the ground, and “Power Ballad” is so measured and relaxed that it becomes tediously sluggish. Thankfully, the latter track is revived in its second half by one of the most jagged and fiery saxophone solos on the album. From this point on, the energy and interest return to the heights of the album’s opening. Especially the lengthy penultimate track, “Beit Lechem,” which is an exercise in thrilling jamming, more than earning its indulgent nine-minute runtime.
While a true understanding of the relationship between African and American pop music is still incomplete in mainstream music discourse, the Hoodna Orchestra sits comfortably in a long-running cultural tradition that seeks to reclaim the true heritage of American jazz, rock and pop while simultaneously pushing their art in new directions. Conscious of this history, the band approaches their music with care and knowledge. Their new album showcases the group’s adeptness at conceptually exploring this style, and their occasional slippage into middling musical territory is nowhere near enough to limit the overall potency of Ofel. Particularly those who enjoyed Your Queen Is a Reptile from Shabaka Hutchings’ Sons of Kemet should seek Ofel out as a means of achieving greater familiarity with this sound world.