Oi Va Voi,
Laughter Through Tears
(Outcaste, 2003)

This album so lives up to its hype. I'd heard that Oi Va Voi was an electrifying live act, that they'd been nominated for two BBC Radio 3 World Awards without even an album release to their name. Laughter Through Tears fulfills my every wish. What a magnificent debut from this young London-based Jewish band -- it's a scorching mix of contemporary dance grooves, stunning musicianship, excellent songwriting and, on top of all this, it's an unabashed celebration of the band's Jewish roots. The album effortlessly combines tradition with innovation and explores cultural identity in a globalist society.

Searing dance grooves, hip-hop/trip-hop sounds, and drum & bass rhythms jostle with bold, passionate lyrics, heart-wrenching Klezmer tunes, even Yiddish wedding prayers and exquisite violin/cello/reed/brass and guitar arrangements. Both sides emerge victorious, for this is 21st-century fusion music at its finest! World influences abound, from Eastern Europe and Spain through to the Caribbean, and the overall ambience, away from the exciting dance beats, is one of reflective melancholy.

Josh Breslaw (drums/percussion) and Leo Bryant (bass) provide the tightest, punchiest rhythm section, Nik Ammar gets so much crisp, rhythmic detail out of his acoustic guitars, and Lemez Lovas provides great trumpet, keyboards and vocals. Sophie Solomon expresses herself sublimely on violin and viola, and Steve Levi excels on clarinet and vocals. Their performances on every song are vibrant and assured.

The band's choice of guests is inspired -- the most noteworthy is upcoming female Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall. The album's material is eclectic, ranging from the contemporary dance grooves of "7 Brothers" (with vocals by Sevara Nazarkhan), through the blatant sentimentalism of "Pagamenska," where octogenarian Majer Bogdanski, a Polish Jew who has set almost 400 Yiddish poems and prose writings to music, talks about Jewish life over Solomon and Lovas' achingly exquisite violin and piano arrangements.

KT Tunstall contributes passionate, very chilled vocals on three tracks, "Refugee," "Yesterday's Mistakes" and "Ladino Song." Tigran Aleksanyan's duduk (Armenian oboe) solo on "Refugee" is the most exquisite backing to Tunstall's very dynamic voice. She sings "Ladino Song" in both English and Ladino, a 15th-century form of Spanish spoken by the Jewish Diaspora since their expulsion from Spain in 1492. The shifting, sensual flamenco rhythms in this song are nothing short of sensational.

The track that perhaps best demonstrates Oi Va Voi's massive crossover appeal is fusion-packed "D'Ror Yikra," with Tunisian Ben Hassan on vocals and darbukka (a small drum resembling a tablah). Earl Zinger provides ragga vocals on the big, bold and brassy "Gypsy," while "Hora" juxtaposes Lovas' almost robotic vocal against Solomon's exquisitely emotive violin and Lenny Breslaw's guest vocal. The lyrics to "Hora" seem to speak volumes about Oi Va Voi's journey in making this music: "It's all about identity/a retrospective odyssey/but where I live and who I meet/are stronger in defining me."

This is the finest of debuts from a band showing so much promise.

- Rambles
written by Debbie Koritsas
published 27 March 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.