It’s not too tough to form a band with three of your best friends, but it’s tough to form a great one, and even tougher to branch into a new musical genre. Local band Joppa aims to do both.
Twisting together a mix of funk, classic rock and reggae, Joppa’s sound is refreshing, chill and, most important to the band and their fans: it’s danceable.
“I can never tell how close band members are to each other, but we’re all best friends, we just get along so well … [and] we really communicate while we’re playing,” said drummer David Karr.
The four best friends of Joppa went to local high schools: Karr and bassist Danny Dahan graduated from Winston Churchill High School in 2005, while guitarist Ben Ifshin and keyboardist/vocalist Ramzy Sulieman graduated from nearby Sidwell Friends the same year.
Karr, Dahan and Ifshin have been playing together as a band since a seventh grade recital when they could only play “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. A good pick since all three say their music has been influenced by the Chili Peppers.
The band rotated through several lead singers until they found Sulieman who brought a keyboard and a new sound to the band. Sulieman says he is influenced by the band Yellow Card and by musical theater, but about the favorite of his bandmates — the Red Hot Chili Peppers — he says, “I hate them, they suck.”
IT ALSO TOOK some time before the band settled on a name, but driving north on I-95 one day, they saw a sign that read “Welcome to Joppatown.” “That was a word that doesn’t really mean anything, so we thought it could mean us,” said Dahan.
Today Joppa is beginning to emerge onto the national music scene. They are playing gigs in New York City, Baltimore and the D.C. area this summer, and will record their debut album at Lion and Fox Studios in College Park this July.
Joppa still plays a couple Friday or Saturday nights each month on a patio outside downtown Bethesda’s Haagen-Dazs, located at the corner of Woodmont Avenue and Hampden Lane. The patio was designed specifically with the band in mind — Karr’s father is the architect who designed the building. “He’s one of our number one fans and put a stage in the patio thinking it would be a good place for us to play,” said Karr. Joppa was the first to play on the patio, starting the line of bands that have played there in the last four years.
THE BETHESDA appearances have created a local Joppa following. Rkiya Bensguir came to Bethesda last Friday hoping to find the band she had heard there the weekend before, and was in luck. “I like the music, the sound and I like [Sulieman’s] voice, it’s a very strong voice.”
“Some of it is like listening to rock music in Negril, Jamaica. I really like it,” said onlooker Allison Billodeau.
“They do attract a very big crowd every time I come,” said Bensguir, “and they have a sense of humor too, to go with it,” she said.
Their humor comes out onstage and also in their lyrics. One of Joppa’s most popular songs is about a gorilla with an insatiable addiction to bananas, entitled “Chill Out Gorilla.” Though Sulieman writes most of the band’s lyrics, the chorus for this song came as a group idea at Ledo’s Pizza, “Then I was just bored one day in math class and wrote the lyrics,” said Dahan.
Aside from Dahan’s math class, the bandmates have not let Joppa’s success interfere with academics. Although they have occasionally taken some time off school to tour, each band member is entering his junior year at a different university — Dahan at University of Miami, Karr at Cornell, Ifshin at the University of Vermont, and Sulieman at the Berklee College of Music.
First-time listeners Maddie Charles and Clare Riva from Walter Johnson High School were also captivated by Friday’s performance. “We are going to follow them now!” Charles exclaimed.
“It’s nice to see these guys who are playing songs more reminiscent of like classic rock, it’s not just some little teenybopper band. … It’s what we need on the music scene,” said Riva.
Most often, the idea for a song will start with Sulieman. “A lot of times Ramzy will compose a line, and we’ll take that idea and run with it,” said Ifshin.
But after Sulieman introduces the lyrics, it’s a combined effort to make the song Joppa’s. “We each have a very unique individual style that we really mix extremely well,” said Sulieman.
So what’s Joppa’s definition of success? “Just as long as we’re getting our music to more and more people, as long as we are making progress there, I’d say we’re a success,” Ifshin said.