Yikes!

Eclectic British klezmer

By
December 29, 2009 02:30
oi va voi 248.88

oi va voi 248.88. (photo credit: )

 
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Oi Va Voi achieves almost the impossible - combining dance beats and klezmer, eastern European horns and trip-hop sensibilities while singing about subjects like a town being burned by the Nazis in the 1930s and Emile Zola reminiscing about the Dreyfus affair in 19th century in France. With the seven-member British band, you never know if you're going to get a Ladino tribute, a Hungarian folk song or some spacey electronica, and that's the way co-founder and drummer Josh Breslaw likes it. "When we got together, all six of us were Jewish. A couple of the guys had traveled in Europe and Russia, and had discovered some old Gypsy tunes. We started listening to this stuff and it was like a discovery for us," Breslaw said in a phone interview ahead of a tour in support of their album Traveling the Face of the Globe, which will take them to Tel Aviv for three shows next month. "It wasn't the kind of music our parents listened to, but it was what our grandparents might have listened to. Sometimes cultural things skip a generation," he added. Enthralled with the world that the music opened up for them, the band - which also features fellow current members of the Tribe Nik Ammar on guitar, and Stephen Levi on clarinet - self-released their debut album, the aptly titled Digital Folklore, in 2001 and began creating a buzz in London. "We've developed our own sound, learning our own tunes at first, and then the old tunes - but played in a way that's relevant today instead of exactly like it was then," said Breslaw. "We saw it as our place to take the old sounds and make them relevant by providing a context for today." Oi Va Voi's first break came when a young female singer named KT Tunstall joined them for their first "proper" debut, 2004's Laughter Through Tears, which included a minor hit in "Refugee," a wide range of traditional music deriving from the Balkans, Yemen and Israel, and guest vocalists from Tunis and Uzbekistan. However, instead of reaping their reward, the band experienced a series of setbacks, including Tunstall leaving to pursue a solo career, founding violin, accordion and melodica player Sophie Solomon also splitting to try things on her own, and internal dissension. "We went from a six-piece down to a three-piece band. It was a case of arguing over ideas, like most bands do. There's that saying of two Jews and three opinions, well here there were six Jews and God knows how many opinions," said Breslaw. BUT DESPITE the travails, Breslaw said the remaining members knew they were in it for the long haul. "We never considered breaking up the band when all the changes were taking place. We had an incredible band with KT, who did a tremendous job on our first album. It was a difficult task replacing her and writing songs for our second album. I don't know how we got through it," he said. While it took longer than expected, the band did pull through, and by 2006 had found a new singer in Alice MacLaughlin, and a new producer, Mike Spencer, best known for his work with such pop artists as Erasure, Kylie Minogue and Jamiroquai. Signing with V2 Records, they set out to record their next album in London and… Tel Aviv. "We had played a few shows in Israel, and we were looking to give our second album an identity. We wanted to take it out of the London environment and give it a different flavor," said Breslaw. "Israel was somewhere we felt closeness to, and we saw a natural progression to go there to record. Of course we had to convince the record company to pay for it," he laughed. The self-titled album that resulted included a swirling mix of rock music, soulful electronica, and world music influences. But like her predecessor, MacLaughlin left the band upon its completion to pursue a solo career. Where does a world music band search for a somewhere unexpected replacement? Enter Bridgette Amofah, a native of Ghana, whose versatility and similarity to powerhouses like Nina Simone and Shirley Bassey added a new element to Oi Va Voi's music. Another new hire, violinist Anna Phoebe, brought the band up to a new level of virtuosity and set the table for the 2009 triumph Travelling The Face Of The Globe. "Our new album was recorded in part in a synagogue in London - the space was beautiful and the acoustics really nice. We did everything ourselves and really understood where we were going," said Breslaw, piling on praise for the band's new front woman. "Bridgett is amazing - she shaped the whole album with her voice.We're an instrumental band, but we always have place for a great singer. She came in and filled that space we have, and live she's phenomenal." IN ADDITION to the now expected klezmer/gypsy/Balkan horn charts of Levi and trumpet player Dave Orchant, Ammar's picking guitar lines, and the versatile rhythm section of Breslaw and new bassist Lucy Shaw, the album also features some twists. Legendary French singer Dick Rivers closes the album with the anthemic "Photograph," in which his world-weary vocal plays the part of Emile Zola reminiscing on his struggle to tell the truth of events during the Dreyfus affair. Even more affecting is guest Hungarian vocalist Agi Szaloki, who sang the haunting "Dissident" on the group's second album, returning to lead the Yiddish song "S'brent" (It is Burning). "That's one of my greatest achievements on the last album. We had done songs in different languages but never one in Yiddish," said Breslaw. The song, written by Polish poet Mordechai Gebertig 1938, came in response to the 1936 pogrom of Jews in the shtetl of Przytyk, and sounded an alarm for the coming Holocaust. "The album seemed to be lacking some kind of depth, it was the last song we did and it all came together. We tried to take an old story about burning Jewish villages in the 1930s and pay respect to it in a more modern context. It's a little waltz but updated. It's a perfect example of what we do best - dust off a museum piece. We certainly never intend to disrespect old traditions, just reframe them," said Breslaw. One surprise side effect of recording the song emerged when the band performed earlier this year in Germany. "It was quite an experience. We had debated whether to play it in Germany or not, but when we eventually decided to perform it, it had a profound effect on the audience," said Breslaw. Dusting off museum pieces and creating digital folklore, Oi Va might not be the best at what they do - they might be the only ones doing it. Catch them live on January 21 and 22 at the Barby club in Tel Aviv and January 23 at The Berale at Kibbutz Lehavot Haviva (www.beraleberale.co.il).

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