Black Ox Orkestar
Photo by Margot Flores Torre
Black Ox Orkestar began playing in a Montreal living room in the summer of 2000, the project of four musicians exploring their Jewish roots through music. Thierry Amar (upright bass), Scott Gilmore (vocals, cymbalom, piano, guitar & percussion), Gabriel Levine (clarinets, guitar), and Jessica Moss (violin) came from years of playing out-jazz, rock and avant-folk in the vibrant Montreal post-punk scene. Listening together to pre-WWII recordings of Jewish and other traditions from Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Balkans, discovered on dubbed cassettes and trips to the music library, they were inspired to capture that music’s rawness and emotional intensity in their own ensemble playing. The band’s intent was to be true to the strangeness and beauty of these archaic songs, translating them into new forms, while avoiding the well-worn paths of museum traditionalism or fusion. Gilmore, who was studying Yiddish at the time, was also writing original compositions in that language, extending a tradition of Yiddish modernism as though it had never been interrupted by genocide and displacement. With their words and music, the band placed themselves in an artistic and political lineage that embraced a diasporic Jewish identity, a politics of solidarity with migrants and exiles, and an approach to tradition as a springboard for musical and lyrical experimentation.
Black Ox Orkestar enjoyed seven years of intense activity, deeply ensconced in the Montreal music scene, working with many collaborators and performing regularly, from New Year’s dance shows to benefits for Algerian and Palestinian refugees. During that time, Gilmore and Levine were also founding members of Le Petit Théâtre de l’Absolu, a puppet theatre that toured a children’s show through the occupied West Bank and Israel in the fall of 2003. Black Ox released two albums on Montreal indie label Constellation: Ver Tanzt? (2004) and Nisht Azoy (2006). Among various accolades at the time, PopMatters called them “the darkest, densest folk group around…a dark trad-Yid band is a welcome change” and Klezmer Shack wrote “absolutely wonderful… incendiary… when a band plays this well, with a range of moods and strengths, and engages in the politics of today’s world in Yiddish, much positive should be said.” The band played their final show in late 2006, before separating geographically to pursue other paths.
After 2007, Jessica Moss and Thierry Amar continued uninterrupted Montreal-based music careers in beloved agit-punk bands Thee Silver Mt. Zion and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, while also making performance, arrangement and production contributions to countless recordings by the likes of Vic Chesnutt, Matana Roberts, Lhasa, Carla Bozulich, Grant Hart, Sarah Davachi, Big Brave, Basia Bulat, Broken Social Scene and many more. Moss is also known for her unique noise-, electronics- and ambient-metal-inflected post-classical solo albums over the past decade, which regularly land on Modern Composition and Electroacoustic year-end lists. Amar is one of the co-founders of the legendary Hotel2Tango recording studio in Montreal. Primary composer/vocalist/lyricist Scott Gilmore pursued human rights law in Washington D.C., while Gabriel Levine completed a PhD and taught performance and cultural theory in Toronto (publishing Art and Tradition in a Time of Uprisings with MIT Press in 2020). Both kept up with their instruments and musical practices largely on the side through this period.
Following a 15-year hiatus, Black Ox reunited in the pandemic summer of 2020, impelled by an invitation by a journalist from left-leaning magazine Jewish Currents to be the subject of a feature article introducing this groundbreaking band to a new generation of listeners. The band reconvened at first in friendship and conversation, which soon evolved into a desire to tap back into the musical chemistry they’d each dearly missed. Pandemic restrictions initially limited them to Zoom meetings and virtual file exchange; one of their earliest new recordings, “Mizrakh Mi Ma’arav”, was forged from a voice memo recording of Gilmore on piano and voice, to which Levine added clarinet in his Toronto basement, and Amar and Moss overdubbing strings at Montreal’s Hotel2Tango recording studio. This song was then released as a flexi 7” by Jewish Currents as a gift to its 6000+ subscribers in February 2022, effectively announcing the return of Black Ox. The song also appears on the band’s new full-length album Everything Returns, which picks up right where they left off a decade-and-a-half ago: an entrancing collection of roiling interpretations of Jewish diasporic instrumentals combined with brooding vocal-driven originals (sung primarily in Yiddish) showcasing their unique sound and sensibility—offering a distinctive take and timbre within the contemporary landscape of Jewish, Yiddish and klezmer music. A burgeoning new diasporic community of such practitioners, researchers and fans has arisen since Black Ox Orkestar's initial run, and the band's first two albums remain lodestars among this next generation. Everything Returns will indeed mark an exciting and welcome return for many and should offer proof positive of the band's continued interpretive strengths, musicianship, and revitalizing contributions to the tradition.
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Contacts & Links
Booking enquiries North America:
David Schellenberg at Constellation