Oi Va Voi has a Yiddish name, you use lots of Jewish influences, both lyrically and musically, so how Jewish would you say Oi Va Voi is?
Steve Levi (clarinet & vocals): "Originally when we started off in 2000, we started learning quite a lot of klezmer tunes and gipsy music from Eastern Europe. That was kind of like the starting point for the band and we immersed ourselves in this music for quite a while. When we recorded our album 'Laughter Through Tears', we teamed up with KT Tunstall and we started to develop our songwriting skills more. Our roots are definitely in klezmer and Jewish tradition."
Bridgette Amofah (vocals): "It's not a religious thing though, it was just a great starting point for the band and I think the emphasis is more on Eastern Europe even."
As a follow-up question, you're all based in London, so how Londonian would you say Oi Va Voi is?
Steve: "Very Londonian! We've all grown up in London or at least spent most of our lives in London and like everybody, I guess, we listened to hip hop, rock, to dance music, drum & bass. You can't ignore where you live, because it has such an impact on what you produce as an artist. We definitely feel like Londoners."
Bridegette: "London is a melting pot anyway and that for me is typically Londonian, the fact we don't want to be labeled or classified."
Steve: "Lots of immigrant communities from all over the world have made their home in London and that also reflects on our band, because a lot of our parents or grandparents were also immigrants. The ideas of questioning where you're from and the search for identity are quite present in our music."
Bridgette: "You can take the title of the new album, 'Travelling The Face Of The Globe', literally but along the way, the cultural influences of the people we met on the road have also crept into our music."
The fact that you guys mix these different styles of music means that one week you might be performing at a rock festival and the next at a more world music-oriented one. Do you guys adjust your set lists accordingly?
Steve: "No, not really, we just do what we do. Without wanting to sound arrogant, we just play our songs the way we want to play them. The great thing about playing versatile music like we do is just this fact that we can play rock festivals as well as world music festivals. A lot of bands can't do that."
Bridgette: "Yeah, I think it's a testament to the bands ability to reach as many people as possible. We're happy to play wherever they'll have us."
Although klezmer music and gipsy music are closely related, the latter is far more widespread and popular. Why do you think that is?
Steve: "The experiences of the gipsy community and Jewish community in Europe are quite similar. Both communities were forced to relocate, often not because of a choice of their own and they've picked up various influences along the way. The reason why gipsy music is now more popular is perhaps because their community is bigger and more widespread. Klezmer is quite popular in certain areas, like New York for example, but, unexpectedly maybe, not at all in Israel. The two are quite similar though, and you'll find a lot of musicians who'll easily switch back and forth."
For the track 'Photograph' you chose to work with the French legend Dick Rivers. How did that come about?
Steve: "We were in the studio recording our album with Jonathan Quarmby and Kevin Bacon who had literally just finished recording Dick Rivers' new album. They told us to have a listen and when his voice came out of the speakers, his typical deep baritone lush kind of velvety voice, we immediately turned to each other and said: "Wouldn't it be great if we could work with him on one of our songs!" Now we had this song, all about memory and looking back on your life, and we wanted a singer with an older more mature voice to get across the subject matter and Dick suited that role perfectly."
In the song he cites a part of Emile Zola's "J'accuse" written in reaction to the so-called Dreyfuss affair in 1890s, historically remembered as one of the great cases of anti-Semitism in France. Why did you decide to use that in the song?
Steve: "I found the text and what struck me was that, even though these events took place so long ago, they're still very relevant today. Zola's words are very powerful. The idea behind the song is that Zola is reflecting back on his life, remembering when he stood up as a young man against an injustice he saw taking place. It's a kind of song that resonated well with what we stand for as a band. Not that all our songs are this serious though, but it's nice to have some in there that have a little weight."
Agi Szaloki is a Yiddish speaking singer you guys often work with. She fits in wonderfully with your music, but why isn't she a fixed member of the band?
Steve: "Agi lives in Budapest, so obviously that already poses a certain amount of logistical problems (laughs), but she also has her own solo career. She's a fantastic singer and quite popular in Eastern Europe. We played the Sziget festival a couple of years ago and we spotted her on stage singing with a band called Besh O Drom. The first song she did with us was 'Dissident', which was on the 'Oi Va Voi' album. We liked that song so much we decided to invite her back for this album. Another reason for inviting her is that her voice is very different to Bridgette's or to mine, so it gives the different songs different sound colors."
Bridgette: "If we would have used her in every song, the result would have become too ethnic. We're sometimes classified as world music and that can be annoying because we consider ourselves to be more a rock/pop band. I think that's also the element I bring to the band, a sort of urban London feel."
Bridgette, you having a black African background, how did you feel yourself fitting in with that Jewish accent in the band?
Bridgette: "When Josh (Breslaw, drums, red.) gave me their album, I hadn't heard of Oi Va Voi yet, but it was never really an issue for me. KT Tunstall, who used to sing with the band, is part Scottish, so I don't think it even matters. I didn't really know Eastern European and Jewish music yet, so musically speaking it opened a whole new and fascinating world for me."
The band name Oi Va Voi means something like "oh my God!"...
Steve: "Yeah, it's like an exclamation: "Oh my God!" or "I can't believe it!", something like that. Originally it was kind of a name we used jokingly, but before we knew it, it was the name we were known by, so we stuck with it. In a way it stops us taking ourselves too seriously. Calling ourselves Oi Va Voi, has proven to be a blessing and a curse. Not everyone can spell it or even say it, but once you got it it sticks!"