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Black Ox Orkestar - Nisht Azoy

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Artist: Black Ox Orkestar

Album: Nisht Azoy

Label: Constellation

Review date: Jun. 21, 2006

Doing justice to Nisht Azoy is a tricky affair, not least because Black Ox Orkestar stand alone, making comparisons and associations nearly impossible. The only artist who comes to mind as vaguely similar is Hala Strana, as both make use of folk song forms from under-represented folks; though oddly, the use of gypsy melodies on the later Firewater albums also comes to mind. Adopting and reinterpreting Jewish diasporic music, Black Ox Orkestar's second album moves through original songs, traditionals and compositions based on folk songs and ballads. The selections are masterful, as is the playing, whether eliciting joy with dance rhythms and singing or delving into slow, sad evocations of melancholy.

The instrumentation is eclectic but consistent, the songs primarily based around violin and guitar-like (hard to say if they're guitars or something else) strings, evoking a clear Eastern European tradition, both Jewish and gypsy in sound. On "Tsvey Taybelakh" the violin and voice, with what sounds like clarinet accompaniment, take on a sad, almost funereal cast; while "Ratsekr Grec" puts a focus on horns and woodwinds as one of the more overtly Klezmer-inspired songs on the album.

While the instruments are handled beautifully on Nisht Azoy – see "Dobriden" with its lovely strings and perfect drums – the vocals are also worthy of note. The vocal chorus in opener "Bukharian,” based on a Bukharian Jewish folksong, is an eerie, gorgeous incantation over the delicate music, while the lead vocal and group chanting of "Az Vey Dem Tatn" sound like a ceremony in progress.

The title of "Violin Duet" might seem self-explanatory, but the song is actually based on Czech folk ballads and a Transylvanian dance tune. Indeed, after an initial few minutes of slow, pretty, scraping strings, the song suddenly transforms into a merry party tune. The switch is clear enough that it might have been wise to admit that this is actually two different songs, but that's a nitpick.

The closing song, "Golem,” is perhaps the most melancholy of them, a slow ballad that's perhaps a bit too lugubrious, weighted with deep longing even if I don't know the language. Nonetheless, it's certainly not without its own beauty, vocals and instruments combining deftly into memorable melodies.

Nisht Azoy may have trouble finding the audience it deserves, as people unfamiliar with these musical styles may hesitate to pick it up. Hopefully they'll take the plunge, because there's a wealth of beauty and a rewarding depth of sound waiting for them within.

By Mason Jones

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