Orkestar Kriminal, started off, like all great things do, as a scam. In September 2012, a group of musicians wanted to get free tickets to the POP Montreal Festival, and in order to do so, had to form a band and perform there.
“We all got free passes, but then we realized we should do this band for real and we just never stopped,” said Giselle Webster, the singer and one of the masterminds behind the multi-personnel group.
Now, the Montreal band has just released its second album Ryobra, produced by Josh Dolgin, which translates from Russian as “ribs.” It is a reference to the way prohibited music was distributed in the Soviet era, when phonographic recordings were cut into old X-ray films.
“A lot of the songs on the record, the only reason we even have them is because that is how they were recorded and distributed, so I thought that’s the perfect name for this record,” said Webster.
The album covers 10 songs in Yiddish, Russian, Greek, Spanish and Pashto from the early 20th century, which tell the stories of people living in crime. The name, Orkestar Kriminal, is Yiddish for “prison band,” and much of the group’s focus is on music that was sung by criminals during the interwar period, when many people were forced to go into a life of crime because of their desperate situations.
“It was just the economic situation that led to that and because of this, a lot of people who weren’t that good at being thieves or whatnot, they got sent to the slammer pretty quickly, and then there’s all these beautiful prisoners’ laments that come out of it,” said Webster. “At the same time, this is reality, it was a reality back then just as much as it is a reality now and it’s important to understand what the motivation behind doing such things.”
Webster first got interested in Yiddish singing after attending the KlezKanada Festival in 2012, where she went a workshop about the Yiddish criminal underworld.
“I come from an assimilated Jewish family, and I was the one who discovered that I was Jewish – it was like a family secret,” said Webster. “Going to KlezKanada was part of me rediscovering my roots and because I’m a bit of a punk, the criminal underworld workshop in Yiddish really spoke to me. I feel passionate about bringing that back and proving to my grandparents that we don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
Interestingly, the band’s album includes songs from all kinds of criminal underworlds from around the world, not just Yiddish music. “We have Mexican drug dealer ballads and Russian mafia songs, it made it a lot more eclectic and challenging,” said Webster, who originally spent a number of years playing in rock and roll bands before changing her focus to this genre of music.
By singing music about this criminal underworld, Webster said that she hopes to broaden the spectrum of things people are singing about, and resurrect music that would have been otherwise lost.
“At a lot of cultural festivals, you never hear this music, because of the nature of the subject, it’s not the kind of thing that continues,” said Webster. “They have beautiful lyrics, really smart rhymes and beautiful melodies. It’s important that they don’t get lost and that somebody has the guts to sing them.”
However, the process of creating this album was a difficult one, that required a great deal of research and seeking out people in the elderly community who knew these songs and who would be able to teach Webster the proper melodies. “Since we are in a whole different era and we have different musical influences, we tried to take these melodies and make them our own, and put our own edge to it,” said Webster.
Beyond that, she had to learn the proper pronunciations of the languages she is singing in, so she enlisted the help of McGill Yiddish professor Yuri Vedenyapin and other linguists. “I want to make sure that I am respecting the language and give it an earnest effort,” said Webster, who speaks English, French, Spanish, Greenlandic, Cantonese and Danish. “I feel that its really hard to take on a new language without really having an appreciation for the culture and I find that learning any language, its culture has to come first.”
The group has gotten a lot of support from the Jewish and Yiddish-speaking communities, and Webster said this album would have been “nothing” had it not been for all of the people helping them along the way. “They’ve done everything they can to help me facilitate this, no one ever wanted to come in our way. They want to make sure that this project was as successful as it can be,” said Webster. “People are trying to rekindle a flame that almost died out, they want as many people singing in it as possible.”
The band itself, which consists of five men and five women, is a “mishmash” of people who have vastly different musical backgrounds, as some members have formal musical educations and others do not. “It was really the collaboration of two different worlds, one that came from the underground and the other that came from a formal musical world. We couldn’t have done without that half and half; I think that mix is what gives us that edge.”
The band recently played at Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival and have several gigs line up across Ontario and Quebec over the next couple months. Visit www. orkestarkriminal.com. Listen to their music here