Klezmer for the 21st century

With a cosmopolitan line-up and an album fusing Yiddisher roots music with other styles, Oi Va Voi are confirming their status as ultra-modern klezmerim.

By Alex Kasriel, September 24, 2009
Oi Va Voi with singer Bridgette Amofah (centre). “We take things from the past and make them relevant,” she says

Oi Va Voi with singer Bridgette Amofah (centre). “We take things from the past and make them relevant,” she says

Klezmer band Oi Va Voi have a strikingly different lead singer. She is the child of immigrants to Britain, although Bridgette Amofah’s parents are from Ghana rather than Lithuania, and she was brought up as a good Catholic girl.

Not that that has stopped Amofah feeling quite at home performing the music of the shtetl. “Fortunately I didn’t feel like I had to be Jewish to fit in,” she says. “Being a Londoner, you’re always encountering different cultures and exploring identities. And being in this band has allowed me to learn about Eastern Europe and Judaism — well, it would be impossible not to.”

Tipped to be the next big thing after performing live on Jonathan Ross’s BBC Radio 2 show in 2008, the 26-year-old vocalist attended the famous BRIT performing arts school in Croydon where she knew Amy Winehouse, even if at the time she had no idea she was Jewish.

“I hadn’t knowingly met anyone Jewish until I joined Oi Va Voi,” she admits. “But now I’ve become much more aware of the culture and the people.” It is an education that has been enhanced by concert tours in places like the Crimea and Ukraine, which would never have happened if she continued working as a solo artist.

“It’s wonderful to join a ready-made band,” she says. “They’ve gone through all the struggle. If I play a solo gig, I’m lucky if 20 people come. Now there’s 1,000 people and I pretend I’ve been there all along. I’m very lucky.

Klezmer has always taken on board outside influences

While Oi Va Voi hire guest vocalists to record songs in Yiddish, Ladino and Hebrew, Amofah has been required to sing in these languages live on stage.

“I learned the words phonetically at first, but it is important to know what’s being said so you can convey the meaning. There are some songs which are more reflective and quite moving — they have moved members of our audience to tears even though they didn’t understand the language.

“The great thing about Oi Va Voi is that they take things from the past and make them relevant.”

Amofah’s presence reflects the band’s willingness to develop away from what is tradionally expected of a klezmer outfit. She is the latest addition to a line-up that has changed considerably since the group was founded 10 years ago, when K T Tunstall was the regular vocalist, before going on to achieve chart success as a solo artist.

Only three original members are left now — Steve Levi (clarinet), Josh Breslaw (drums, percussion) and Nik Ammar (guitar). Lemez Lovaz’s trumpet has been replaced with that of David Orchant, and the distinctive Sophie Solomon on violin has been replaced by the equally charismatic Anna Phoebe.

The music has moved on too. Several of the tracks on their new album, Travelling The Face of the Globe, have barely a trace of klezmer. Other songs are truer to the band’s roots — the mournful S’Brent, about the Warsaw Ghetto, includes the unmistakable Yom Kippur melody sung in synagogue during the 13 Attributes of Mercy. The title track features a tradional klezmer trumpet, although it is allied to a much more aggressive drum beat than you might have heard in the shtetl, and the lyrics cover more worldly subjects than just Jewish wit and wisdom.

Steve Levi recalls that Oi Va Voi’s emergence a decade ago coincided with a wave of other bands like Gogol Bordello and Balkan Beat Box using Eastern Europe as an influence, reflecting a growing interest among young Jews to delve into their backgrounds.

“Our parents may not have been that interested in their heritage,” he says. “Our generation is almost privileged to be able to seek out this past. We’re almost comfortable enough, living in Britain, to do that. It takes a few generations before you don’t feel like you need to integrate.

“In some of our songs we have used traditional melodies which juxtapose English vocals. But it’s still Jewish because we live in London now in 2009 and our generation has grown up surrounded by the influences of London. It’s our 21st-century take on that. Klezmer has always taken influences from where the musicians lived. In that way, we’re continuing the tradition.”

Oi Va Voi play at Shepherd’s Bush Empire on September 30 (08444 772000, www.o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk). Travelling The Face of the Globe is released on Absolute records

Last updated: 11:02am, September 24 2009