For a band poised to release their debut album, Oi Va Voi have already made a big impression on the world music scene. This year they were nominated in both the Boundary Crossing and Listeners Award categories of the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards, and dynamic live shows have won them plaudits for their distinctive Jewish/ Gypsy fusion.
The launch party for the release of Laughter Through Tears was held at the Bedford Hotel, Balham, an imposing venue in an oddly unfashionable area of London. Inside, the Victorian decor stretches into the Globe Theatre (surely once a home for vaudeville acts), providing one of the most distinctive live spaces in London, even if it smells like sewerage pipes are threatening to burst under-neath the floorboards.
The key figures behind Oi Va Voi are the trumpet player Lemez Lovas and the violinist Sophie Solomon. Quite different in character, Lovas is laid back and studied in his answers during our interview, whereas Solomon is eager to get her point across and teems with nervous energy. They first met while studying Russian at Oxford. Although one press release states that the band create a "21st-century klezmer groove with a jazzy breaks b-line", both of them raise their eyes at the suggestion that they are a modern klezmer band.
Klezmer, for the uninitiated, originated as dance music - played chiefly at weddings - in pre-war Jewish eastern europe. Migration between 1880 and 1924 saw many klezmorim (musicians who play klezmer) heading west from the Austro- Hungarian and Russian empires, as well as Romania, taking their traditions with them.
"We see klezmer as just one component of what we do," Solomon sighs and stares at her watch. "Because we originally played in that style, it became a misnomer that we billed ourselves as a drum & bass klezmer band. Certainly some of the techniques, orientations, and phrasings come from that style, and even some of our inspirations for the melodies, but there are so many other influences."
Lovas takes up the mantle: "We've done interviews where people spend the whole time talking about 'what is klezmer?' and 'who are the best klezmer musicians?' But we don't want to talk about that because it leads people to expect one thing, and then hear something completely different. We're really worried about misinterpretation, and it's all because we have a klezmerish name (it's a Yiddish colloquialism for 'oh, my god!')."
It may also have something to do with the fact that they still play klezmer at weddings, and herein lies a fundamental dilemma for Oi Va Voi. With a new-found slicker sound, augmented by the guest singers K T Tunstall, Earl Zinger and the Uzbekistan diva Sevara Nazarkhan, the group are currently going through something of a make-over. Understandably, they are keen to break out of any niche market and avoid coming across as the new Jewish band, but are they prepared to swap strong musical identity for commercial androgyny? Much will depend on the success of the new album. The introduction of the Scottish singer K T Tunstall has provided an extra dimension to the persona of Oi Va Voi. Her buttery vocals caress the listener into the world of 'Refugee' and 'Yesterday's Mistakes'. The former was inspired by an Armenian folk melody, but it is her voice that really stands out, a perfect accompaniment to Lovas's heartfelt lyrics. Her versatility even stretches to singing in Ladino (the language of the Sephardim) on the Medi-terranean flavoured 'Ladino Song'. Having signed a deal with the Outcaste label, the future looks rosy for this endearing young singer-songwriter.
"We felt for a long time that we were trying to communicate to our audience with a lot of instrumental tracks," Solomon explains when discussing Tunstall's contribution to the band. "We had some vocals tracks but often they weren't sung in English, and we felt that there was a missing link. We really needed to communicate with the audience more directly because we felt we had a lot to say about the refugee situation, treatment of gypsies, and so on."
One of the most remarkable tracks on the album is 'Gypsy', featuring the cockney beatnik tones of Earl Zinger (aka Rob Gallagher - formerly the front man of acid jazz heroes Galliano) over a Balkan brass dancehall beat. Solomon explains that the track was inspired by Rachel Lichtenstein's writing in Rodinsky's Room, a book that revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a reclusive East End scholar.
It is clear that underneath their deliberately ambiguous façade, both Solomon and Lovas are proud of their Jewish roots. "Whatever music and songs you write, it's all about who you are and where you come from," Solomon points out. "So obviously the fact that we are Jewish, or partly Jewish, and that we all had different relationships with this, means we are going to express that in the music we make. But we've all had really different influences from drum & bass, hip-hop, jazz, funk or whatever. When you make music it's about all those fragments of you being channelled through the music. So Oi Va Voi is an expression partly of our Jewish identity, but also of living in London and being exposed to all different types of music."
"We're definitely part of a generation of immigrant families that are far enough away from any painful memories, to be empowered by our roots," says Lovas. Solomon's grandparents are Lithuanian and Polish Jews, whilst Lovas's roots are Hungarian.
Having already raised the stakes with show-stopping performances at Cambridge Folk Festival, Glastonbury and that night at the Bedford, it's clear that Oi Va Voi are more than ready to step up a gear. The day after our interview the band flew to LA for a show with the Algerian Jewish pianist legend Maurice el Medioni. The show has been promoted by YadArts, an energetic collective who have taken Oi Va Voi all around the world. The band fly back to Washington later to promote Laughter Through Tears. One only hopes that they don't get called a klezmer band.
'Laughter Through Tears' is out on Outcaste Records on MondayReuse content