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Musicians of Greenbelt: Jennifer Laemmer and Mark Cheater

Fez Tones Hafla at the New Deal Cafe
The Fez Tones Hafla. That’s Jenn and Mark on the right.


Our next Musicians of Greenbelt – Jennifer Laemmer and Mark Cheater – are best known locally for their monthly performances with Fez Tones Hafla at the New Deal Cafe and home drumming events in their Old Greenbelt home. 

Performing Now

Jen and Mark currently perform with these groups:

  • The Fez Tones Hafla performs traditional Middle Eastern songs with some of the region’s best bellydancers from 6-8 every 3rd Sunday at the New Deal Cafe. The group also performs at the Washington Folk Festival, a Turkish Festival in D.C., and other festivals, dance performances and private events in the DMV. The band started in 2011 and Mark joined soon thereafter. Jen joined after moving to Greenbelt in 2014.
  • Both also play in HyeTones, which performs Armenian music for the Arev Armenian Dance Ensemble.
  • Jen plays drums in an all-woman world music group Roumana mostly at private functions, including “Diversity Day” at the FBI headquarters in D.C, and events with Middle Eastern themes.
Dragon Song
Dragon Song
  • Mark plays with DragonSong, a collaborative world music ensemble whose founders live in nearby Berwyn Heights.
  • Both Mark and Jenn teach drumming at Drum and Splash, which is held every summer at the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Pennsylvania.

Interestingly to me, both say their years of playing percussion instruments didn’t prepare them for Middle Eastern music – it’s that different. Jen told me that the keys and rhythms are so foreign to our Western ears, even to experienced musicians, that it takes years of training before they can perform Middle Eastern music competently.

Back Story

Jen grew up in Indiana and started playing percussion in junior high – in marching bands, a percussion ensemble, orchestra, and jazz band  (She was almost a punk rocker, too, though she pooh-poohs that label because the band DID play Beatles, after all, and covers of other popular music. She had a full drum set!)

Music took a back seat for Jen after college (majoring in communications) when she moved to Los Angeles and began her first career at a business management firm for entertainers.

She rediscovered drumming – and hand drumming for the first time – in 2007 when she saw someone use a doumbek and immediately signed up for a class to learn to play it.

Jen moved back to Indiana for grad school in health promotion, a degree she finished in 2014, then moved to the DC area and found work as an employee wellness coordinator for the City of Alexandria.  (Here’s Jen on LinkedIn.)

Mark grew up outside Philadelphia and played drums in a marching band, concert band and a pit band through high school. Then while studying science at Oberlin College he played percussion in the nonmusic-major orchestra and a Javanese gamelan ensemble.  And one of his favorite courses was in ethno-musicology.

Music took a back seat during his years of travel, group houses and apartment living, where practicing drumming was impractical. Around 2000 he went to a drum circle in Takoma Park conducted by Stream Ohrstrom – his first experience with hand drumming. (Stream calls him a “recovering stick drummer.”) Stream asked him to join his band, the Blue Dragons, and that’s where he discovered Middle Eastern music. Mark took drumming lessons at Sahara Dance with Brad Sidwell, one of the founding members of the Fez Tones, and also attended workshops with a variety of Middle Eastern percussionists.

Mark is semi-retired from his career as a writer, editor and photographer, work that used his science studies at Oberlin and Masters in journalism from Columbia. He had written for papers in the Northeast and moved to the DC area in 1990, where he worked for a variety of environmental and conservation groups until 2015.

In his free time Mark volunteers for various political and environmental causes and recently joined the Board of the New Deal Cafe.

Mark Cheater and Jennifer Laemmer and their Greenbelt home

Greenbelt Connection

Jen and Mark bought their GHI home in August of 2015 and moved in in November after Frank Gervasi had installed a new kitchen and deck. They tell me they chose Old Greenbelt for its cooperative spirit, neighborliness, and its nexus of musicians at the New Deal Cafe, and chose their unit in GHI for its privacy and space for rehearsals and parties. Mark had already gotten to know people through his performances at the Cafe with both The Fez Tones and Stream and the Blue Dragons (a group that includes new-Greenbelter Raven Eyes Cagle). They knew the Cafe to be a very special, welcoming place.

Drumming and partying in Greenbelt
Drumming and partying with friends on their new deck

Mark and Jen met at the medieval-themed festival in PA, taking a class in Middle Eastern music. In looking for a place to live together, they didn’t want to leave the DC area with their music connections here.

Back stage with dancers and drummers at Pennsic, the medieval-themed festival in PA
Back stage with dancers and drummers at Pennsic, the medieval-themed festival in PA
Follow Susan Harris:
“Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com and direct the nonprofit Good Gardening Videos.org.”

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