A Long-Distance Harmony

Childhood friends create music together despite being hundreds of miles apart.

By Jackie Montalvo

Halfway through their set, the members of Zaramela begin to play an instrumental interlude. Horns booming, the lead singer beatboxes as the crowd sways with the music. The saxophone starts to play to a different tune as the guitars and drums transition one by one into a new melody. The crowd erupts as the band plays the first lines of Kanye West's “Gold Digger,” completely engrossing everyone at Double Door Chicago.

Since its debut in 2012, Zaramela – a band made up of seven college students at four different colleges – has been booking bigger and bigger shows, from the House of Blues and the North Coast Music Festival in Chicago to the South by Southwest music festival in Texas.

With influences from jazz, blues, rap, hip-hop, soul, gospel, reggae and rock, Zaramela’s sound continuously morphs to match its changing musical interests and influences.

The members of Zaramela – Northwestern University student Josh Schwartz-Dodek, DePaul University students Kris Hansen and Malcolm Engel, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students Aaron Gamalinda and Mike Jang and Columbia College Chicago students Inho Park and Jameson Brenner – have had music deeply ingrained in their lives since early childhood.

With the extensive variation in the instruments they play and the sounds they can produce, Zaramela has defied categorization.

“We can’t put a name on our sound,” guitarist Brenner says. “It’s like nothing out there and every time we come together it’s changing.”

The saxophone, trumpet and trombone bring a unique, soulful, jazzy tone to Zaramela’s music, giving them what they call their “full sound.”

“Now, whenever I’m listening to music without a brass section I’ll hear spaces where I’m like ‘Oh, a horn there would make that sound better,’” says Schwartz-Dodek, a McCormick sophomore.

All hailing from the northwest suburbs of Chicago, Zaramela’s members have been friends since middle school and wrote original music in Engel’s basement throughout high school. There is no formula for their writing style. Usually a member of the band will have an idea and bring it to the others for feedback.

"We can’t put a name on our sound. It’s like nothing out there and every time we come together it’s changing." – Jameson Brenner

“Sometimes I, or one of us, will come to the band with a full song written out with music for all the parts and play it for the band,” Brenner says. “Then we tweak it and sometimes it comes out the same as we brought it and others it sounds like a completely different song.”

Other times, like in their cover of “Gold Digger,” the music comes from playing around with chords while jamming together.

“I was playing a few chords on the piano and Jameson asked what they were and started playing on the guitar,” Park says. “Then Kris started singing ‘Gold Digger’ over it and it just sounded really good.”

Zaramela’s three managers organize its gig requests, but the seven members plan out their own rehearsal times and schedules. Backstage before their show, Schwartz-Dodek and Hansen sat with their calendars open attempting to coordinate their schedules for the following two weeks. For those that go to school near Chicago, they practice together in a shared space at Fort Knox Studios downtown, while Jang and Gamalinda have a space in Urbana-Champaign.

The band is focusing its energy on recording a third record. “[We’re] trying to get the exact sound we want for this project,” Engel says.

While the band members have no concrete plans post-college, they hope to continue playing music for a while before going their separate ways.

Zaramela is currently in the process of writing and recording an EP, and its demo album Work (2012) and debut album Gumbo (2013) are available on Spotify.