Punk-inspired klezmer band Black Ox Orkestar is releasing new music after a 16-year hiatus

Members of Black Ox Orkestar,. (Credit: Stacey Lee)

Experimental klezmer band Black Ox Orkestar has returned with its first new music in 16 years, which expands on the social justice themes and eclectic stylings of its earlier work.

The band’s new album Everything Returns comes out Dec. 2. “Mizrakh Mi Ma’arav,” its first single, which made its streaming service debut on Oct. 20.

Clarinetist Gabriel Levine, who lives in Toronto, told The CJN about the band’s formation during the Montreal music scene of the early-aughts.

Levine recalls playing brass band street music, and meeting people in the klezmer world, while at the same time playing in indie bands with a more folky, experimental orientation.

“I had thought it would be interesting to start a Yiddish klezmer band that had some of the kind of punk energy that I was interested in in my other projects,” he said. “I felt like there was a sound that was out there, but I hadn’t really heard it from other groups, even though I liked what they were doing.”

He spoke to his childhood friend from Toronto, violinist Jessica Moss, about this idea. Around the same time, he met Scott Gilmore, a McGill Yiddish student and multi-instrumentalist who had been playing in a klezmer band around Montreal.

The trio connected with Thierry Amar, who played bass in the internationally acclaimed band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and began rehearsing in the summer of 2000 in Gilmore’s living room.

“There was a whole world of people making this kind of music, but it felt like there was room for kind of darker, weirder, more punk inspired klezmer project,” Levine said.

Gilmore had begun writing songs in Yiddish and the band went through old records to find interesting sounds to emulate.

This produced music infused with sounds from the Mediterranean, North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, “with a heavy dose of instrumental Jewish music,” Levine said.

They released two albums– Ver Tanzt? (Who’s Dancing?) in 2004 and Nisht Azoy (Not This Way) in 2006–before going on hiatus later in 2006.

All the non-instrumental tracks were in Yiddish on these albums, but the band moved towards a “polyglot stew of language” on the latest record, with lyrics in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Russian and German, in addition to Yiddish.

The band’s reunion was spurred in 2020 by a request from Abraham Josephine Riesman—an arts and culture journalist at the left-wing magazine Jewish Currents—to do a feature on the band’s legacy.

“We had a couple of pretty emotional Zoom conversations among ourselves first and kind of talked about how much the project had meant to us and how sad we were that had dissolved when it did,” Levine said. 

After the interviews with Riesman, the band decided to start collaborating on music again remotely, since everyone was at home due to the pandemic anyway.

“Mizrakh Mi Ma’arav” began as a voice memo on Gilmore’s iPhone, with Levine adding bass clarinet to it from Toronto before sending it to Montreal for Moss and Amar to add violin and bass, respectively.

Gilmore now resides in Washington, D.C., where he teaches law at Georgetown University.

“It just kind of turned into this beautiful collaboration where our shared vision was just there,” Levine said. “It was clear that we were just all on the same page still.”

The single was first released exclusively through Jewish Currents in February, with a floppy, plastic flexi-disc, which can be played on a record player, sent out to subscribers in the winter.

The band has always been a “deeply political project,” with much of their music rooted in the members’ work with movements “for justice in Israel and Palestine.”

The new album takes a more introspective approach to dealing with contemporary issues, whether it’s the “rise of neo-fascism in the United States and around the world, continuing violence of the State of Israel against Palestinians,” or the plight of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.

But, Levine said, this isn’t “agitprop music.”

“It’s more like thinking about what it means to be a human being in this world and to be Jewish in this world, to try to connect with the tradition, extend from there and think about what connections there might be between Jewish history and other contemporary histories, and pressures and experiences that people around the world are going through right now,” he said.

Black Ox Orkestar has tour dates scheduled for Toronto; Montreal; Keen, New Hampshire; and Brooklyn from Dec. 13-17.