Oi Va Voi's Brave New Klezmer

Melody Macher

By Mordechai Shinefield

Published August 14, 2007, issue of August 17, 2007.
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The experimental London ensemble Oi Va Voi opens its self-titled third album with a brave new look into the future of klezmer. On lead single “Yuri,” a distorted, distant voice calls out, “I am a rocket, the power of the system/it’s bullet-proof technology/Oh, we’re going to a new world/Going to a better place.” Clarinet and strings evoke an Eastern European sound, as a techno beat carries the composition. The track ends with a sample of Russian radio, announcing the achievements of “pilot Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin,” and it becomes quite clear that Oi Va Voi has likewise made it into outer space.

Along with a slew of other hip indie bands (including Gogol Bordello, Beirut and DeVotchKa to name a few), Oi Va Voi has built a career out of world music mix-and-matching. Each of the band’s songs nosedives into various musical traditions, and nothing is too obscure to escape its lustful fingers. At the source of all these bands, however, is a strong commitment to Eastern European folk music — in Oi Va Voi’s case, klezmer. On its latest album, that commitment makes odd appearances — on the piano-driven “Further Deeper,” sung by chanteuse Alice McLaughlin, or the pop-rock “Black Sheep.” On both tracks, klezmer creeps into the inflections of the singer, dangling in the background.

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Oi Va Voi’s eclectic mashup of klezmer, electronica and indie rock may seem unprecedented, but in fact klezmer has always been a multifaceted genre, drawing on and influenced by various traditions. While klezmer was informed by Jewish liturgical melodies, traveling musicians also formed close bonds with Gypsy performers. They swapped lyrical stylings and musical content, making klezmer a fertile ground for eclecticism. Oi Va Voi’s own concoction is firmly in this tradition. Every sly klezmer beat Oi Va Voi slips into one of its songs is not only a complement to its cosmopolitan music, but also an homage to a storied and promiscuous musical tradition.

“I’m sending out this tune to another place and time,” McLaughlin sings on “Black Sheep,” her voice trembling in tempo with a vibrating gypsy beat. Looking forward, even as it looks back, Oi Va Voi may have made the first great klezmer album that is truly of the 21st century.

For more from Oi Va Voi, visit the band’s MySpace page.

Mordechai Shinefield has written about music for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and the New York Press.

For more Melody Macher columns, click here.

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