A California frame drummer finds inspiration and her debut album in the Negev

Marla Leigh Goldstein made an unexpected trip to Israel last November, and finally completed the tracks of her first solo work

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Prominent in the annals of female frame drummers is the image of Miriam the prophetess, beating her drum at the splitting of the Red Sea during the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.

Marla Leigh Goldstein, a southern Californian frame drummer, flutist and composer, is channeling that biblical character in her debut album, “Rhythms of Tof Miriam.” A frame drum is wider than it is deep, and may have jingles attached.

Known by her stage name, Marla Leigh, Goldstein is one of the few female frame drummers on the world stage, and while she’s been playing for most of her life, this is her long-awaited debut album, being released on May 15.

“There’s been a long lead time for me to get around to this,” said Goldstein, speaking from her home. “Even though I’ve been a musician my whole life.”

The eight tracks are full of dialogue between drums, lush harmonies and melodies of the ney flute and oud, and a moving bonus track titled “Ahava Abba,” dedicated to Leigh’s late father and composed on a piano by his bedside during his last days of life.

Goldstein lives and works in Santa Barbara, where she runs a frame drum academy, but recorded the album, unexpectedly, in Israel.

Frame drummer and flutist Marla Leigh Goldstein came to Israel from California in November 2019 to film the video for her debut album, ‘Tof Miriam,’ on the dunes of the Negev Desert (Courtesy Marla Leigh Goldstein)

Goldstein was in Greece on a retreat in November 2019, then flew to Israel intending to film a video and one song.

It was her first time in Israel since her teen tour during high school.

“In America, things take so long and it was the opposite with this project,” said Goldstein. “Israelis are tough, it’s a tough culture, but everything about this was easy. There was a lot of joy and pleasure in doing it.”

Working with a local production studio, she filmed her video among the sand dunes and cliffs of the Negev Desert, aiming for an ancient setting that fit her instrument and the swirling moves of dancers Zola Dubnikova and Lalita Devi.

“It was magical,” she said. “There were rockets falling on the south then, and it was surreal to be creating this beautiful art amid this reality.”

Despite the uncertain period, Goldstein ended up finding her musical home with a local music studio and musicians. She stayed an extra three weeks in Israel to finish the album, paid for with a crowdfunding campaign.

“I’ve been waiting for this for 25 years,” said Goldstein, who only had one song ready, the title track “Rhythm of Tof Miriam,” when she first arrived in Israel.

The album brought together acclaimed oud master Yair Dalal, Meira Segal on the ney, Ori Werner playing the kamancheh, Shahar Kaufman on the mondol, Leat Sabbah on the cello, Oren Tsor playing violin and viola and Gavriel Fiske on the frame drum.

The songs were composed, arranged and produced by Goldstein, with co-production and engineering by Shahar Kaufman at OnyxStudio in the northern town of Rosh Pina.

Frame drummer Marla Leigh Goldstein discovered likeminded musicians and studios in Israel, which moved her to finish her first album in November 2019 (Courtesy Marla Leigh Goldstein)

The album revolves around the frame drum, the traditional drum played by women in ancient Mediterranean cultures, and often used to put people into altered states of consciousness. Inspired by that tradition, Goldstein composed many of the songs in longer time-cycles, allowing for extended listening and, sometimes, drifting into such altered states.

According to Goldstein, when a listener hears repeated rhythms they are brought into a trance-like “theta” state of consciousness (the state that is best for meditation and yoga), as well as an increase in dopamine, popularly seen as natural chemical of pleasure.

That could be of use right now during the coronavirus, said Goldstein, in helping listeners relax, heal and free themselves.

With dreamy beats and lush tracks, California frame drummer Marla Leigh Goldstein found inspiration and fellow musicians in Israel, for her debut album (Courtesy Marla Leigh Goldstein)

Goldstein was a classically trained flutist who didn’t know much about frame drums when she took a percussion class while studying for her BA in jazz flute at the California Institute of the Arts, known for its expertise in world music.

A month into her undergraduate studies, she heard master percussionist John Bergamo play the frame drum, which inspired her and shifted her focus to earning a masters in Fine Arts in World Percussion.

The women in ancient Greek culture who traditionally played the frame drum “probably took to it because of its sound and simplicity,” said Goldstein.

And while she’s still one of the few female percussionists performing and teaching, she’s dedicated to her craft.

“At most events, there’s usually 25 men and two women, and I’m one of the two,” she said. “That’s just fine.”

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