BLACK OX ORKESTAR
Interview by Myriam Bardino
Black Ox Orkestar is a Montreal based quartet formed in 1999.They
released their record Ver Tanzt at the end of April through Constellation.
The band features: Thierry Amar (contrabass – also Silver Mount Zion/Godspeed
You! Black Emperor/Molasses) – Jessica Moss (Violin, bass clarinet – Silver
Mount Zion/Frankie Sparo) Gabe Levine (clarinet, guitar- Sackville), Scott
Levine Gilmore (vocals, mandolin, cymbalon, drums, etc.) Word asked
Scott Levine Gilmore some questions about their style of music and the
ideas they wish to express through this release.
WORD: Why did you choose klezmer music as a means of expression?
How do you relate your specific work with that of other klezmer artists
like: Oi Va Voi, John Zorn’s Masada, Elliot Sharp, The Klezmatics?
SCOTT – We chose to play klezmer because of our personal experiences
with Jewish music. Thanks to the revival of klezmer and Jewish folk music
that began in the 1970′s, the traditional music of European Jews (Ashkenazic
and Sephardic) has become an important means for Jews to connect with
their identity outside of the normative approaches of religious orthodoxy
and identification with Israel.
Music has been a central aspect to secular and religious Jewish culture
in the Diaspora. I wouldn’t say that our goal was specifically to reconnect
with Jewishness or anything like that. It’s more that, having been exposed
to this musical culture, we recognised the beauty in it and its potential
for exploration. Much of Jewish music bridges the divide between folk
song and art song.
There is a complexity to the music that demands an initiation into
its modes of interpretation and improvisation. It is this complexity
that allows you to play these old songs without sounding quaint, to breath
fresh ideas into it. We certainly aren’t the only band to recognise this.
The Klezmatics have been modernising klezmer and Yiddish song for years.
While they tend to draw more on theatrical music and rock elements than
we do, their innovation definitely opened the doors for younger musicians.
John Zorn has made a great contribution to contemporary Jewish music. His
work with Masada and the Tzadik label have in many ways established the
field of alternative Jewish music.
I would say that we desire to break out of the Tsaddik mould a little.
I don’t mean to knock what the New York scene has been doing for the
past decade, but there does seem to be a certain sound that you find
across the Tsaddik roster. I would hate to see that sound define the new
boundaries of contemporary Jewish music.
In Black Ox Orkestar, we have tried to interweave new and old elements
without falling victim to eclecticism and fusion. If we can remain true
to the intensity of the old music, to its hypnotic weirdness, and use
its musical elements as a vocabulary than I think it is possible to create
seamless new sounds with it.
WORD: You are a Montreal based band with strong links to other Constellation
artists: Silver Mount Zion, Frankie Sparo, Sackville, Godspeed You! Black
Emperor. Do you feel particularly loyal to this label because of its
SCOTT – Absolutely. I think Constellation is a great example of how
far you can get by really sticking to your principles. Not only are they
consistent in their aesthetic standards, but they hold true to their ideals
in their business practice as a socially conscious record label. In a time
where many independent record labels seem to be just talent-farms for the
majors, they have stubbornly insisted on remaining truly independent. I
think that their interest in putting our record out is partly an effort to
show that indie economics needn’t apply only to ‘rock’ music. It might be
a bit of a gamble on all our parts, but since the outset, we as a band have
always wanted to be making independent Jewish music. It’s just being honest
to our values and the values we see in the music. Klezmer has already been
co-opted in a mainstream, corporate manner. It makes sense that radical Jewish
music should make its way out into the world through radical means.
WORD: Gabe and you performed in “Le Petit Theatre de l’Absolu” a
political theatre and puppet show that performed across Europe. Do you
think that this work is complementary to your music and in what way?
SCOTT – Forgive me for waxing theoretical here, but I should confess
that both of these projects have been pretty intellectualised. Gabe and
I have certainly seen elements of our band and our theatre influence
each other. In terms of performance, we have always sought means to break
down or play with the boundaries of performer and audience. Puppetry
is a form of stage magic that allows the performer to create a world
for the audience and invite them inside to laugh at it, poke at it,
walk away from it, or critique it. We always refer back to Bertholt
Brecht’s concept of alienation, whereby the audience sees both the
character on stage and the mechanisms of performance. It creates the
illusion and reveals its artifice at the same time. If you do it
right, it allows you to be really thought-provoking without being too didactic.
You disarm the audience with your cute little puppets, and then let the
puppets speak the uneasy truth about power and history.
People always seem much more willing to listen to a puppet make
bold political statements than some earnest, breathless activist. In a
way, we try to do the same with our music. Jewish music has its campy,
irreverent elements. To a lot of people it sounds like circus music.
Like the clowns, we can speak the sad truth through silliness. So, the
bounce and energy of klezmer can be very disarming. And then there is the
matter of singing in Yiddish, a language that is practically dead. I feel
like I am doing a masked performance sometimes when I sing in Yiddish.
There is a certain ambiguity to it; people must ask themselves, “Who is
this person, this young punk, singing like an 80 year-old ghost from Poland?”.
It all leads back to Brecht’s idea of alienation. People can see the multiple
layers of identity that go into the performance, and somehow that critical
position opens up a place for thoughtfulness. That’s really what I want
for people to get out of our music; I want them to feel charmed by it, but
also to ask, “what’s this all about anyway?”. Yep, charmed & puzzled.
WORD: Is it important for you to sing in Yiddish? What is your position
with regards to multicularism and anti-globalisation movement?
SCOTT – It’s very important for me to sing in Yiddish for two reasons.
Firstly, Yiddish is the language in which this great, beautiful body
of folk music was sung. If we want that music to survive its history of
genocide and disappearance, somebody’s gotta sing it. Secondly, I think
Yiddish is amazing because it’s such a mishmash of different languages.
It’s an embodiment of cross-borders culture of diaspora Jewry. Although
I love Hebrew, the prospect of it (or English) becoming the mono-language
of Jewish culture strikes me as being unfaithful to the far-flung, polyglot
nature of Jewish history. As far as multiculturalism goes, I think it is
already an undeniable feature of the 21st century. There’s no fighting it.
Nationalists can tighten their borders and try to homogenise their education
systems till the cows come home, but the circulation of populations has
been a growing feature of global capitalism since the 19th century. There’s
no turning back, so we should celebrate it and figure out what kind of interesting
stuff it opens up to us.
Regarding anti-globalisation, I would make of Yiddish a humble but
sturdy cudgel with which to strike fear into the hearts of plundering
multinational corporations and their well-catered forums.
WORD: You sing, in ” Ver Tanst “A young soldier. He dances a hora
on Arab bones. He sings over Arab graves. There’s no peace, no truth. All
oaths are broken. Do the oppressed mirror the oppressor?” Members of the
Black Ox Orkestar are also involved in a local Arab-Jewish group that promotes
the end of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. What
do you think of Sharon’s latest policies and what do you believe ought
to be done for a resolution of this conflict?
SCOTT – Sharon’s latest policies are atrocities, just like his old
policies. This man seems to be incapable of seeing the light. I don’t
think any positive change can occur until the Israelis get him out of
office and break the stranglehold of the religious right-wing. The recent
IDF campaign in the Rafah refugee camp seems to be a bloody and crude attempt
to win back the support of the settlers and zealots after Sharon’s referendum
on a Gaza pullout blew up in his face. I would say that many, if not most,
Israelis realise that they are spinning out of control. But no one really
has any idea what to do or what can be done. The uncertainty and panic in
Israel is fertile soil for strong-arm solutions. There are many shameful
precedents of the right-wing wresting control in times of crisis through
the unequivocal language of violence: Fascist Spain, Nixon-era America, &
hell, post-9/11 America. There is an internal struggle in Israeli civil society
and I believe that this struggle has to be played out. My earnest hope is
that this can happen peacefully. I certainly don’t have any brilliant proposals
to bring peace to the middle east. Clearly, I believe that occupation in
the name of ethnic nationalism must end. And of course, the bombings have
to stop. The brutal antagonism that has led to generations of Palestinian
terrorism and Israeli militarism must be somehow pacified and reconciled.
If I knew just how, I’d be devoting the rest of my life to carrying it out.
WORD: The lyrics in “Toyte Goyes in Shineln”, the 8th track in your
album, are from the poet Itzik Feffer a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist
Committee (JAC) murdered by Stalin’s decree in 1952. Why did you choose
this piece and how do you relate to it?
SCOTT – I chose to write music for this poem for a reason that few
will be able to appreciate. I encountered Feffer’s poem in a university
course on Soviet-Yiddish literature and I was immediately drawn to it.
The quality of his Yiddish is amazing. The poem is perfectly minimalist.
Its verses are tightly coiled in repetition and rearrangement. It describes
the sight of women frozen to death in Russian train stations during the
civil war and famine of the 1920′s. The writer merely observes a horror that
defies meaning. He doesn’t try to eulogise. In this poem, I always found
something that lays out the future for Yiddish poetry. It’s modernism is
a glimmer of future developments that weren’t fated to come. There’s a line
in the poem, “they waited for trains that didn’t come”. Well, the train for
Yiddish never came.
WORD: There are quite a few representations of ancient cabalistic
icons in your artwork: front cover, inner sleeve, and other 2 in the booklets.
What do they represent? Scott has drawn in the back cover an image of a
helicopter flying over of what looks like the skies of Babylon, is this
a representation of a kabala too?
SCOTT – There are a number of Kabbalistic images in the album cover.
It’s not that we are Jewish mystics or anything. There are aspects of
Kabbalah that I find interesting and parts that strike me as beautiful.
A sense of exile and alienation run through Kabbalistc mysticism. The image
on the front of our record is a representation of the ten layers of separation
between the divine and the profane world. I find this image of a labyrinth
as a sort of representation of isolation and loneliness that we have to
struggle to find our way out of. The drawing on the back cover is a bit
of an esoteric collage. The building is the alt-neu shul in Prague which,
according to legend, was where the body of the Golem was put to rest. The
Golem is like a Jewish Frankenstein, created by a Rabbi from clay to defend
the ghetto from persecution. Without a soul and without the ability to discern
right from wrong, the violence he is charged with overpowers him and he
becomes a threat to all around. This has always struck me as being somewhat
analogous to the creation of the state of Israel. And so, the helicopter
in the drawing is an Israeli chopper. I guess I wanted to suggest the Golem
idea and just put in contrast the realities of old-world and contemporary
WORD: You wrote in your bio: “Ver Tanzt is not a record for dancing..but
as we play this old and new music, blending archival material with our
own experimentation, some ancient ghosts are certainly dancing around
our heads.” Did you particularly refer to any historical or political
SCOTT – I don’t think we had any particular characters in mind, though
I think we’ve been possessed at times by the spirits of Emma Goldman,
Karl & Groucho Marx, Moyshe Oysher, Meyer Lansky, & some Ziegfried
Follies girls. I had a dream once that I was taken over by the dybbuk of
Sigmund Freud, but it was probably just my own guilty conscience.
WORD: Have you got any plans for a next release or an european tour?
SCOTT – We have begun writing and researching new material for a
follow-up album. We will be recording in August. We don’t have any plans
for a European tour, but it is definitely a possibility for spring 2005.
<<Ver Tanzt>> was released on Constellation on 29th April