Black Ox Orkestar are a fabulous entity fundamenatlly existing as a Jewish folk group and bringing back the powerful and often haunting moods and scales of old traditional forms, but reinterpreting or updating them to include other, perhaps more modern, influences. The group formed in 2000, and Nisht Azoy is their second album, following 2004’s Ver Tanzt, and continuing the same themes.
The band are majorly influenced by old Jewish songs from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and also by other modern bands working with the same traditions, such as Musikas, Taraf de Haidouks and Kocani Orkestar. The songs contained on Nisht Azoy all use standard traditional Jewish scales but flit between instrumental tracks and pieces with prominent vocals, and also between slower, calmer and reflective songs and more upbeat folk dances. The first track, “Bukharian”, is a contemplative guitar-led piece, based around a single riff, as is the case with most of Nisht Azoy. The song slowly builds with softly powerful group vocals, a form used effectively throughout the album, and with accompaniment from percussion and violin. All the instrumentation on the album is acoustic, and more powerful for that fact.
“Violin Duet” offers dark and moody harmonising for several minutes before bursting into an incredibly uplifting dance tune.
“Az Vey Dem Tatn” offers the first appearance of the Yiddish vocals, over the common trance-like percussive heartbeat, and the string instuments which make up the rest of the band. The violins come to prominence on the third track “Violin Duet” which offers dark and moody harmonising for several minutes before bursting into an incredibly uplifting dance tune played by the whole band complete with hand-claps. After the more brooding, emotional and mostly vocal-led “Ikh Ken Tsvey Zayn” the album switches back to upbeat instrumental territory, with the incredibly rousing tunes of “Ratsekr Grec”. Tracks like this, and “Dobriden” are the kind of songs that really do make you want to dance, and as most of us have no knowledge of traditional Jewish dancing, that can just add to the enjoyment available here.
The different members of the group have backgrounds performing various styles — jazz, punk rock, experimental — and have played in groups such as A Silver Mt. Zion and Godspeed You Black Emperor! They state that “we wanted to make a new Jewish music, not simply a revival: a music that captured the energy of folk traditions and transformed it through our own idiosyncratic tastes, at once embracing and subverting tradition.” So as well as the influence of traditional Eastern European/Balkan Jewish music these other styles can be heard — see, for example, how “Ikh Ken Tsvey Zayn” moves into an almost sleazy post-rock blues track towards the end.
a refreshingly different listen and a fascinating and enjoyable entry-point into the world of Jewish music
The band share an anti-Israeli-occupation politics and are pro Palestinian/Jewish unity, but although feeling strongly about this and believeing that this goes hand in hand with their music, this is an underlying feeling as opposed to the overpowering force that political opinion can find itself in punk and rock music.
The album ends with “Golem”, the villain of Jewish folklore, but this isn’t just music for the Jewish or only for fans of their musical styles. The Jewish style sits between Western and Eastern scales, forms and instrumentation, especially now in its new form as presented here. This album for most of the audience will offer a refreshingly different listen and a fascinating and enjoyable entry-point into the world of Jewish music, but it is entertainingly filtered through recognisable Western styles of folk music, blues, jazz and experimental post-rock, coming together to form an impressive, interesting and worthwhile record.