Klezmer music has an interesting history running through the 20th Century. It had been a traditional folk music that Jewish travelers took with them through various parts of the world, serving as an important cultural repository in the diaspora. The music, usually performed in a minor key, made its way to the United States, but soon disappeared. In the late ’60s and ’70s, musicians and historians began to rediscover klezmer and its significance, leading to a revival period that continues today, and includes several acts that combine traditional styles with more contemporary sounds, such as the Klezmatics.
Now, a strong klezmer album has appeared from an unlikely source: Constellation, an independent label from Montreal that’s known for its post-rock bands with their sonic expansiveness and cinematic expressions. Constellation is now home to Black Ox Orkestar, a klezmer quartet from Montreal that claims as influences not only tradition European Jewish folk music, but also indie rock and free jazz. The concept sounds highbrow and, while it certainly involves an intelligent approach to playing, its results often strike the gut more than the head. After all, new music frequently involves an accretion of various styles, and Black Ox Orkestar (which include members from Constellation’s Silver Mt. Zion and Sackville) simply show a standard process utilizing original parts.
On the group’s debut album Ver Tanzt?, the music relies most heavily on Eastern klezmer styles, although a hint of Morocco lies in some of the tracks. Most of the disc’s tracks are updated versions of traditional folk songs, with a nod to jazz found more in the band’s approach then in its sound. The three originals — opener “Shvartze Flamen, Vayser Fayer”, “Ver Tanzt?”, and “Toyte Goyes in Shineln” — fit the mold of the other pieces, and are indistinguishable as original, a fact that compliments both the band’s songwriting and its steadiness in performance.
Although the album maintains a steady tone through out, Black Ox Orkestar varies tempo and mood enough to keep the individual tracks interesting. Slow, dirge-like numbers are off-set by more stomping, militant-sounding pieces, and each track by the band, unlike many of their labelmates, is relatively short. The orchestration of instruments — usual suspects such as guitar, violin, mandolin, as well as contrabass, harmonium, and others — remains fairly steady, but different instruments come to the fore on each of the tracks. The percussive melody on “Skocne” provides a particularly nice change of pace toward the end of the album.
I suspect most of you are in the same boat as me: you don’t speak Yiddish and won’t be able to understand the lyrics. However, you shouldn’t be put off by that, as singer Scott Levine Gilmore’s vocals are expressive enough to make a literal rendering often feel unnecessary. Gilmore’s voice fits in like another instrument, and the band uses it much the way that Sigur Ros (who even sing in their made-up “Hopelandic”) use vocals. If you are able to understand Yiddish, on the other hand, you’ll be in for what appears to be a challenging political discourse. If you can get the message, the band has transliterated an original Yiddish poem for you in their liner notes. “Who’s Dancing?” includes the lines “Do the oppressed mirror the oppressor? / The beaten child is in the street with fists / And the sad race of wise men / Sends brutes / To the border.” The poem reveals the politically taut nature of the band. The members draw their music from the Jewish heritage and speak about history, using a medium important to those outside of Israel; at the same time, they question the efficacy of Zionist attitudes.
Black Ox Orkestar have entered the indie rock scene with music unlike anything else on that scene before them, and they’ve done so by reaching to the past. It’s an odd compound of sound, and yet it’s highly effective. In mixing a variety of influences and traditions, the band has created an album that’s backward looking and forward thinking, as well as challenging and moving.