Black Ox Orkestar is a European Jewish folk quartet of musicians from Montreal, Canada that formed in the summer of 2000 to explore their common Jewish heritage for sounds that could speak to them in the present.
Black Ox Orkestar's music is entirely acoustic. Texts are sung in Yiddish. The group's four musicians distill Balkan
, Central Asian
sources; while this range may seem eclectic, it should be noted that music forms falling under these regional rubrics were themselves influenced by one another. The result is a coherent, impassioned sound that gives teeth to old Ashkenazi Jewish
songs. Member Scott Levine Gilmore has said, "We certainly didn’t have any grand ambitions when we started. But we did share an idea of playing social music, music that was very danceable and approachable. And also to be doing it in a sort of indie rock milieu."
Black Ox Orkestar are linked with so-called "New Jewish music", resetting European Jewish folk ballads traditionally sung a cappella, by writing and performing new, political texts in Yiddish.
In so doing, the group celebrates Yiddish diasporic art as a living alternative to state culture in every form and as an alternative to holding Israel as the cultural and ideological Jewish center. They use Yiddish as a code meant for deciphering, a message from the recent past that, in their view, cautions against the separation of peoples. As a hybrid tongue, the group feels that Yiddish has never stood for disengagement and enclosure, but always thrived on contact and exchange. Indeed, much of the group's music revolves around political statements. Singing in Yiddish becomes a celebration of their heritage and a rejection of the assimilation undergone by the Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who spoke Yiddish, resulting in the language's virtual extinction as a spoken or daily language outside Hassidic Jewish communities.
Critics of this position take issue with the idealization of Yiddish, particularly at a time when it has virtually ceased to exist as a secular living language. Some critics charge Eurocentrism since, as a European Jewish creole, erecting Yiddish to a pan-Jewish status excludes Jews whose family histories do not include Europe. Critics more focussed on the political spin given to the Yiddish language, meanwhile, note that the only living communities in which the Yiddish language thrives as a living language are Hassidic communities whose ideologies are rooted precisely in disengagement and enclosure, not contact or exchange.
Black Ox Orkestar's members name as influences the poet Itzik Fefer
and a range of Jewish and non-Jewish music which was current in the years preceding World War II
. Their own backgrounds are in folk
, punk rock
, out jazz
, and free jazz
music. They are:
- Thierry Amar (contrabass)
- Scott Levine Gilmore (vocals, cymbalom, guitar, mandolin, saz, violin, percussion)
- Gabriel Levine (clarinet, guitar)
- Jessica Moss (violin)
- Thierry Amar is a member of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band.
- Scott Levine Gilmore plays in Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band and Friends of Cush (with composer Sam Shalabi). has also played in Luftmentsch Fareyn (with Josh Dolgin, aka So Called). He was a founding member of Le Petit Théâtre de l'Absolu, a puppet theatre that toured through Israel and the West Bank in 2003.
- Gabriel Levine played in Sackville, and Friends of Cush (with Sam Shalabi) and the Wild Lawns. He has worked in Vermont for the Bread and Puppet Theatre, and was a co-founder of Le Petit Théâtre de l'Absolu.
- Jessica Moss has been a member of many bands and collaborations on the Montreal music scene. She plays in Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, and has played with Broken Social Scene.