A Fate 7 Years in the Making
The big band origins of world music band Doombalaya
Words and photographs by Katie Sikora
Big band is a form of music tied famously and historically to the city of New Orleans that represents a breeding ground for infinite new styles and genres as well as the inspiration needed to blend them into one. While big band hit it’s peak momentum in the 1940s, the repercussions are still vibrating amongst musicians today including the six undergraduate students that met in the Tulane University big band ensemble that went on to form the band that is now Doombalaya.
Paralleling the world of jazz and big band, the group today is vastly different from its origins in the fall of 2009. Many members have come and gone and the music has been touched by many hands. Their music comes from widely varying influences and yet, out of necessity, the band has embraced the changes they needed to make for themselves and for their listeners.
Little Band Beginnings
The first unofficial gig for Doombalaya and The F-Bomb Slammers — they eventually dropped the second half of that name — was at Der Rathskeller, a campus venue and restaurant at Tulane, and only included four of the eleven members that make up the band today: Ethan Stern on keys, Nick Benoit on bass, Cleveland Donald playing trumpet and Matt Rosen on guitar, along with Matt Van Houten on baritone saxophone and Andy Freeman behind the drums. After that first show, Jason Winikoff replaced Freeman on drums and that lineup remained until Ari Kohn, Jeremy Phipps, and LaTasha Bundy were brought in on saxophone, trombone, and trumpet respectively, although only Kohn still remains. As if there wasn’t enough turnover at that point, various bands members began to leave for study abroad programs and summer vacations, and substitutes were brought in for multiple semesters in a row.
This included David Bode and Roger Powell. Bode, a native New Orleans saxophone player, had made previous appearances playing on gigs with Doom (the inside shorthand for Doombalaya) including the first public show they played at The Maison on Frenchman Street to cover for Kohn while he was in Italy. Similarly, Powell was invited to sub on drums for Winikoff while he was studying in Zambia. But unlike many of the Doombalaya subs that came before him, Bode had staked a claim in both songwriting and performance, so much so that the band realized the need for both saxophone players.
The same thing happened upon Winikoff’s return from Africa: he relinquished the drum set to Powell, becoming the band’s percussionist and the two of them created what is now referred to as “The Noise Machine”. The remaining members are Cyrus Nabipoor, a trumpet player who sat in with Doombalaya while visiting New Orleans his senior year of high school and eventually joined the band when he returned for school in the fall of 2012; Russell Ramirez, a trombone player that was brought in for certain gigs but came on full time in the fall of 2014; and Jenna Winston, who began as a friend and fan, showing up at every show to sit in, and is now the band’s lead vocalist.
When beginning my research for this story and performing interviews with the band members, the first obstacle was to define Doombalaya as a word and as a concept. I received virtually as many answers as there are people in the band. Benoit explained that he and a friend “…were riffing on funny New Orleans sounding band names [back in the day freshman year at Tulane].” Kohn says “It’s like this jumble of all these ingredients. Like jambalaya…basically the product of having eleven people in one room honking at the same time.” But it was what Bode told me that I feel is the most cryptic yet accurate way to explain the band: “When I think of Doom, I think of the people in it.”
The most distinctive thing about Doombalaya is that there are eleven of them. And while there are a few overlaps in character traits, each band member is distinctly different from the next. Stern is outspoken and the driving force within the band, the kind of person you need to push a project forward. Benoit is a comical combination of stubborn and incredibly intelligent, traits that come out when he’s playing. Winikoff is consistently enthusiastic as well as the most studious of the band members. Powell is goofy and outwardly backwoods southern as well as being Benoit’s “partner in crime”. Rosen is also stubborn and forceful, but in the best sense of the word — he was the first to reach out to people for gigs at the onset and handled the booking for a long time. Bode is meticulous and the most organized musician you will ever meet which, in a band with eleven different and crazy people, is needed. The trumpets, Donald and Nabipoor, are the ones to speak out if another member is creating unnecessary turmoil or botching the music. Kohn is soft-spoken and kind and keeps the spirit of the band high. Winston is full of love and has a communal spirit but goes balls to the wall in every performance. Ramirez can be counted on to keep things lighthearted yet is incredibly passionate regarding his craft. But then again, they are all inspired by that same passion. That’s the thread that holds it together. “With everyone, they’re all so ambitious and driven,” says Benoit.
Big Band Desires
While the revolving door-like history of the group is important, it is ultimately these people that make up Doombalaya, what they each bring with them in personality and passion, and the experiences they have gone
through together — booking one of their first gigs only to find out that no one could be there; playing shows to completely empty rooms; crashing the van on their first tour — that has allowed them to develop from a Frenchman Street gig group to a “real” band. They are no longer a hired gun but retain ownership of themselves, their decisions, and their music. This is no more apparent than in their most recent accomplishments: recording their third studio album, playing at the historic Tipitina’s for the first time to a packed house and booking their first show at The House of Blues.
The tour in the summer of 2014 is credited with being one of the major inciting incidents that brought them to a higher level of commitment. “Being on tour, we saw what we could be when we were at our best and I think we’re all more serious about making that happen,” Bode says. This sentiment is echoed by the rest of the band and while Benoit agrees that the tour and their Tipitina’s show are an accurate representation of where they are going, he also believes there’s something even more integral to Doombalaya making it this far and in one piece.
“[The word Doombalaya] makes me think of the beginning of the band. It makes me think of us going to Matt Rosen’s house after our first gig in the Rathskeller at Tulane where we were a sloppy cover band type thing and all listening to Mingus until four in the morning and realizing that there were other people who were into that kind of thing,” he says. “We were music students that were all relatively early on in what we wanted to do. None of us knew exactly where we wanted to go and now so many of us have dedicated so much of our time to music that it just naturally unfolded into something more. We’re all just such dedicated musicians, it had to go somewhere.”