Oi Va Voi is huge in Turkey.
That’s right, the British-based modern klezmer band spends a great deal of its time touring all around Turkey, where its residents appreciate the prominence of the clarinet and their contemporary but old world sound.
“We’re still surprised about how big we are in Turkey,” Oi Va Voi drummer Joshua Breslaw told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview. “We’re one of the few Western bands who are big there – we could literally tour Turkey a few times a year.”
But come this December, the group of Jewish musicians will head to another country with a group of die-hard fans: Israel. The band will perform two shows in the country – on December 5 at Zappa Jerusalem and December 6 at the Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv.
“When we first came to Israel [in 2004] there were a lot of people who were surprised to hear us playing klezmer and Jewish music,” said Breslaw. “They took a lot of ownership of it, and we seemed to get that they were quite proud of something that had a strong Jewish identity. From that time we’ve always felt that when we go to Israel the audience there kind of treats us as one of their own... it’s a kind of feeling of coming home, even though we’re not Israeli.”
And while Oi Va Voi is a British group, these days they have an added Israeli flare, with guest singer Zohara, who is based in Tel Aviv, and a second drummer, Moshik Kop, who is also Israeli.
The band has been around for 18 years, and has certainly undergone a series of personnel changes, and a varied musical journey. In the band’s early years, they sang with KT Tunstall, who later became a popular solo artist. Their early albums won acclaim, but the band took close to a decade to release its upcoming and fifth studio album. But one thing has remained fairly consistent over the years: their genre-busting and boundary-breaking sound.
“We literally can’t define ourselves,” said Breslaw. “We want to desperately... when we first came out, everyone said, ‘You have to be world music’ and then they were saying, ‘You’re crossover, you’re world crossover.’ Then people have called us klezmer and folk,” he said. And even 18 years later, “nobody in the band has really been able to say for sure,” Breslaw added. “It’s klezmer, it’s eastern European world, and we’ve got quite a contemporary sound as well.”
There’s no denying – especially with a Yiddish name like Oi Va Voi – that the band is definitively and significantly Jewish. And that hasn’t changed for its upcoming and long-awaited album, Memory Drop, which will be released this November.
“We kind of switched off from studio mode and just carried on touring,” said Breslaw of the long gap since 2009’s Travelling the Face of the Globe. “This record is more of a collage” of songs than the band’s other releases, including things recorded on the road, and changed on the fly.
But Breslaw says the latest record is as Jewish as the band has ever been.
“The Jewish identity in our music is still really strong,” he said. “This album has just as much of the klezmer and Jewish identity as all the other albums.”
The first single off the 10-track album is Vanished World, a brass-y, folky tune that includes the lyrics “Am I losing my faith/ Am I losing my ideals/ When my words are drowned out loud/ Disappear into the ground.”
Breslaw said most of the lyrics on the new album were written by the band’s clarinetist Steve Levi, who “sings cantorial music... he’s the most steeped in Jewish tradition [in the band].”
“Most of the songs are to do with movement of people and refugee situations that we see around us today,” said Breslaw, “that are shadows and memories of situations we’ve had in the past – warning signs... We’re still trying to find relevant ways of framing those kinds of situations around us.”
Oi Va Voi will play on December 5 in Jerusalem and December 6 in Tel Aviv.
Tickets go on sale on Wednesday.