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Oi Va Voi

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2004-05-10

Oi Va Voi

Oi Va Voi

Since their debut album Laughter Through Tears was released in 2003 Oi Va Voi have established themselves as the hottest British Jewish band around.

The six-piece band, who have been together since 2000, bring all manner of influences to their music, including dance and world music – with some traditional Jewish sounds thrown in for good measure.


The band’s new single Yesterday’s Mistakes is released this month, and they are also off on tour, playing dates in Cambridge, Brighton, London and Manchester before heading off to play some shows around Europe. Something Jewish’s Caroline Westbrook spoke to two of the band’s members, bassist Leo Bryant and clarinet player/vocalist Steve Levi, about their music, their influences, and how they avoid being booked to play Barmitzvahs…


How did the band get together in the first place?

Leo: We really came together in London sort of at the turn of the millennium. Some of us had been knocking about together exploring East European music, but I think it was probably 2000 that we really got our vision clarified of what we wanted to do. So I’d say that’s when we started. It’s really the combination of having played together for a bit and seeing all the different influences that all six musicians were bringing in, that we realised we wanted to find a way of playing music that expressed all those different influences, because there was so much music we were excited by, especially living in London where there’s so much music going on?


Were you surprised by the critical acclaim for Laughter Through Tears? The New York Times, for example, called it one of the ten best albums of 2003…

Steve: We were very pleased. It was a hard slog, as all creative pieces are, and it was a long time in the making. I mean although it took a few months to actually make in the studio it was a process of three or four years of working out our sound and really exploring all the music we like. On the album what I think you’ll hear is the sound of six musicians putting into music what they actually like and what touches them. We’ve tried not to leave anything out, so that’s why it may sound a little bit eclectic, but that’s what we like.


Are you into the New York Jewish American sound?

Steve: In some ways – we’ve played with members of The Klezmatics when we were in America – but I’d say our sound is more of a London sound. The New York sound is quite jazz-influenced and our sound, I think it’s fair to say is more dance music. London is more club culture – drum and bass, any kind of garage – the whole of Britain is dance music whereas New York is jazz – and we’re more of a dance influenced band, I reckon.


What sort of following do you have? Is it a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish?

Steve: Definitely a mix. And different age groups as well, you have children through to grandparents – it really is a mixture of ages.

Leo: The core is definitely the younger generation, I think that reflects what we’re doing, and what our music is. But it’s a very diverse crowd.


When people find out you’re a Jewish band, do they ask if they can book you for their barmitzvah or wedding?

Leo: We do get a little bit of that – just between you and me, you understand!


How do you overcome that?

Steve: I think we push ourselves a bit and not rest on our laurels thinking we can play traditional klezmer – which is wonderful, I mean I love traditional klezmer – but I’d also like to push it forward a little bit and play something new. That’s what we all try to do.

Leo: To be honest, I think to some extent what we’re trying to do is reactionary against this obsession with looking back, which has produced some fantastic stuff, but we wanted to do something new, something which looks forward and reflects young Jewish identity now.


As a testimony to what you’re doing, would you like young Jews to see you as role models?

Leo: Well, that would be fantastic!

Steve: We’re just trying to make a good sound for people now. I don’t know about role models and everything like that – it may be going a bit far – but we’re just trying to create the music that comes from within us – and play to crowds in Britain that like our music.


How’s your family reacting to all this? Have they suggested you get a proper job?

Leo: No, we get lots of support. I think people appreciate what we’re doing.


Who are your musical influences?

Steve: I think each band member’s brought with them a few different influences, I mean anything from influences from the synagogue that might be cantorial type stuff, to jungle drum and bass.

Leo: Personally my musical background was funk, which perhaps is a bit of a cliché for a bassist but that’s what I’m in to – and then we have a drummer who bought a lot of hip-hop and afrobeat kind of feel, we’ve got a guitarist who’s into his Latino kind of stuff, then we’ve got the traditional East European traditions – Lemez, our trumpeter and vocalist is inspired a lot by Turkish music at the moment, that’s his flavour. So I couldn’t say what our influences are, I think one thing we want to do is reflect a really wide range of music, because I think that’s really what’s happening at the moment, especially in London, there’s a whole lot of music going on – people playing a whole lot of different stuff, and that’s what we’re grown up listening to, so that’s what we want to do.


Which do you think is better – Ashkenazi music or Sephardi music?

Steve: They’ve both got a great sound and as you’ll hear on Laughter Through Tears we’ve included both sounds on the album – we’ve got an old Yiddish singer speaking in a very strong accent, we’ve got clear Sephardi Ladino language, we’ve tried to mix it all together. We’ve mainly got an Ashkenazi background, apart from our guitarist who is Sephardi, but we try and include both.


What can we expect from the tour?

Steve: We’re doing a tour of Britain amongst other places. We’re playing Cambridge on 9 May, the 11th we’re in Brighton, we’re playing at the Jazz Café in London on 13th May and our last date is on the 14th in Manchester at the Band On The Wall. And in addition to that we’re also going round Europe, playing some European dates and really exciting, we’re going to Israel in June. So we’ve got a packed summer.


Yesterday’s Mistakes is released on May 10. The album Laughter Through Tears is available now. For further information about Oi Va Voi, visit their website: