What a difference a letter can make. Just ask Oktopus, the Montreal-based eight-member klezmer band.
“The “K “is for klezmer. And as I always say in our shows, if people looking for us in an Internet search write it with a “C”, they will find a lot of sea monsters, not a lot of klezmer bands,” says the octet’s founder, Gabriel Paquin-Buki.
Paquin-Buki heads one of the few entirely French-Canadian klezmer groups in Quebec, but he has a genuine claim to his repertoire.
“I listened to this music as a child and grew up with it,” says Paquin-Buki, who notes that it comprised his father’s favourite playlist.
After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in classical clarinet performance from the Université de Montréal, Paquin-Buki realized that orchestra seats were a rare commodity, so he rerouted into comparative literature for his master’s, with a focus on the Shoah. The subject held a personal connection, as his grandfather had been murdered in Auschwitz.
“The first thing I learned from it is the most important thing I could do is keep the memory alive. When I missed making music I returned to it to focus on klezmer, though it took me a while to learn to improvise. I think of my roots, and when I compose or arrange, my grandfather is still there,” he says.
As a child, Paquin-Buki took piano lessons and then, in high school, when he couldn’t settle on what else to play, he was handed a clarinet. “It turned out to be a good thing for playing klezmer music,” he says.
Oktopus was born in 2010, and by 2012, the band was playing professional gigs and getting ready to record albums. Their first, titled Lever l’encre (2014), set the band’s tone by incorporating Québécois composers into the mix, even giving the music of Félix Leclerc a klezmer twist.
“It’s like a little bridge into klezmer for people across Quebec. And klezmer is music that everyone can relate to,” says Paquin-Buki.
In 2017, the band’s second album, Hapax, garnered nominations both for Instrumental Album of the Year at the 2018 Juno Awards and Best World Music Group at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.
The album is deeply affective, with its combination of infectious freilachs and the more sombre side of Jewish soul, such as the haunting composition Le rêve d’Anne Frank.
“In the early years, we felt obliged to play only upbeat music because people were hoping to dance all the time. But klezmer music has different shades,” says Paquin-Buki.
In 2017, he teamed up with klezmer accordionist Henri Oppenheim and two others to play as a quartet at Bourgie Hall as part of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ concert series in connection with its major exhibition Chagall: Colour and Music.
“Henri and I each composed a movement inspired by the art of Chagall. I later brought what I composed to Oktopus. Now, violinist Vanessa Marcoux and I compose for Oktopus, but mostly we play my arrangements of klezmer, Maghreb and Balkan music,” he says.
Oktopus has played festivals, cultural centres and shuls across Canada, and has also appeared in Belgium, France and Germany. This August, the group is scheduled to play the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival in British Columbia.