Tuning up the band for several holiday gigs, Shamati founders Isaac Zones and Nathaniel Markman see music as the best part of Hanukkah.
“Hanukkah is a celebratory time, a holiday people look forward to and have a lot of nostalgia for,” Zones said. “It’s a time when we focus on themes of light and miracles, and bring joy to people through our music.”
Shamati has an especially busy day on Sunday, Dec. 6: There’s the 1 p.m. “Latkepalooza,” a free community family celebration at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City, followed by a 4:30 p.m. Hanukkah “Hoedown” at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. They’re also looking forward to playing at Google’s Hanukkah party in Mountain View.
Zones, 34, plays guitar for Shamati, while Markman, 28, is a violinist and song leader. Both put their musical talents to use in the Jewish community — Zones is music educator at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, while Markman coordinates musicians for various occasions, such as Wilderness Torah events.
The band also includes Roger Sideman on bass and drummer Craig Miller. From time to time, other musicians sit in, expanding the size of the group.
The Hebrew word shamati means “I have heard you,” and that choice for the band’s name was deliberate. “The phrase represents some of what I feel works about the group,” Zones said. “We listen to each other as people, as well as musicians.”
Markman and Zones met in 2010 at Camp Tawonga, near Yosemite, where the two were song leaders and musicians. “I was playing violin, Isaac was on guitar, and we had kind of a bluegrass sound together,” said Markman, who has been playing violin since he was 4. His instrument originally belonged to his great-grandmother, who bought it in 1922 in Brooklyn.
“I have fun using my violin to take a song with a klezmer feel in one beat and turning it into a bluegrass song in the next,” he added.
Both Markman, who lives in Oakland, and Zones, a native San Franciscan, lived for a time in Los Angeles, where they saw “amazing Jewish bands,” according to Markham. Their goal was to create a Bay Area “band that could get people dancing.”
Their first job was in 2013 at Wilderness Torah’s Sukkot on the Farm, and they have played there each year since then, enticing up to 300 people onto the dance floor with music that includes Israeli tunes, American pop, Jewgrass, Motown and folk songs. Band members also routinely play and lead songs at area Shabbat services.
Shamati also plays at simchas and other events, while Markman and other band members have produced albums featuring Shabbat and High Holy Day music. “We have found our little niche in the Bay Area,” he said.
Zones also spoke about the joy of being part of a group of 10 or more musicians sitting in a circle at a service co-sponsored by Urban Adamah and Wilderness Torah. The community fills in the outer rings of the circle, focusing on spiritual singing. The practice follows the model of Navah Tehila, a Jerusalem Jewish Renewal group.
“To me, music is an incredible medium through which humans can find each other, and I find this to be particularly interesting in Jewish community,” Zones said. “The Psalms say to serve God with joy, and I find it profound to be able to bring joy to our people. … Any way I can help a community become closer, more connected and more emotionally open in their interactions with each other, brings me great joy.”
No matter how lives are affected by politics, the economy, war or other external hardships, Zones sees music as an incredibly powerful force that can be used for good.
“It’s definitely my force of choice.”
Shamati plays at “Latkepalooza,” 1-3:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6, Peninsula JCC, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City. Free. www.pjcc.org. Also 4:30-6:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at Hanukkah “Hoedown” ECE fundraiser, Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., S.F. $55-$70/family. www.sherithisrael.org www.shamatimusic.com