Montreal-based 10-piece band Orkestar Kriminal plays interwar-era gangster songs from Eastern Europe and other parts of the non-English-speaking world, and polyglot vocalist Giselle Claudia Webber said finding material is “kind of like a musical anthropological project.”
Webber, who was raised on the Lower Mainland, said some songs she found as sheet music, if they had been transcribed. In the case of songs from the Soviet Union, Webber said the authorities outlawed their distribution, forcing her to rely on audio recordings of seniors singing from memory.
“I would find these old field recordings and I have a lot of archivist friends that are very into sharing what they’ve recorded and found because it’s music that would have died out with this older population,” she said. “Especially we’ve lost so much of the Yiddish stuff because of the Holocaust and it’s important that this music doesn’t die. The stories they’re telling are true and real and very, very beautiful and poignant.”
The band’s most recent album, Ryobra, named after the slang term for Soviet-era bootleg phonograph recordings, sees Webber sing in Yiddish, Russian, Greek, Spanish and Pashto.
This month Orkestar Kriminal tours Western Canada for the first time, with a show at Nanaimo’s White Room on July 16. The tour also has stops in Yellowknife and Dawson City, Yukon.
“I’ve never spent any time in the Canadian arctic, so I’m really excited because I speak Greenlandic, which has a lot of similarities with Inuktitut,” Webber said. “So I’m really excited to practise my Inuktitut a little bit.”
Webber said the concept for Orkestar Kriminal came to her after attending a klezmer music workshop on Yiddish criminal underworld songs. She said the band also allows her to indulge her linguistic interests.
“I already loved Greek rembetika music and Mexican narcocorrido songs,” she said. “And I realized in the interwar period everybody was singing about this because everyone was incredibly destitute financially and it led to often a life of crime … and this happened so much that it all kind of seeped into folk music.”
Webber said that although it may be hard to track down 90-year-old foreign crime ballads, there’s no shortage. “You just have to talk to the right people.”
“It’s fascinating. It’s kind of like the layers of an onion, you know? The more you peel back, the more it stinks,” Webber said. “I keep finding more and more things, especially in Russian. Jeez, there must be about 1,000 old gangster tunes in Russian, so it’s exciting. I love it.”
WHAT’S ON … Orkestar Kriminal performs at the White Room, 4 Church St., on Tuesday, July 16 at 8 p.m. Tickets $15, available here.