She’s sailing the musical seas
Wanderlust brings Giselle Webber to Orkestar Kriminal’s Old World laments
GISELLE WEBBER “A lot of the songs (I heard) are prisoner laments. I can identify with people on the outskirts of society.”
“I never listen to the style of music I’m making,” Giselle Webber says. “If I’m making a hip-hop record, I won’t listen to hip hop for a very long time because I’m afraid of subconsciously ripping it off. So when I was in Hot Springs (from 2004 to 2008), I was listening to all this weird Greek underground criminal music.”
We’ll assume she’s either listening to whale song or Christian anthems now that she’s playing in Orkestar Kriminal, a wild 12-piece spooling out Old World crook laments in more languages than a Main deli in 1919. Hairy-chested Greek mobsters and Jewish sharpies stalk through the swindlings, shaftings and gullings on debut EP Zontani! L’bin! Levende! (“Live!” in Greek/ Yiddish/Danish), launched Friday night at Lion d’Or. Yes. It’s the Original Gangsta.
Before we get there, props are offered for Hot Springs. “Thanks for even knowing about that band,” she says, but it would have been impossible to miss noticing the fire pillar of a girl fronting the indie rockers who tore it up far too briefly on the Montreal scene. The Volcano album (2007) you should own.
But even that was at least two incarnations ago. A girl of many personas, Webber started out in punk, and has been underground female rapper Giselle Numba One and loungey femme fatale Gigi French. Since coming out of hibernation (more below), Webber has immersed herself in the inter-war Yiddish of Ganovim-loshn and elemental criminals.
She was living in a Griffintown loft “with the dude from Godspeed, David Bryant. He had this crazy record collection. And I was also in Red Mass when Hot Springs was ending and Roy (Vuccino, bandleader) is Turkish, so he would hand me tons of records to listen to. I was immersed in all this strange music.” There was also Cambodian music, before Cambodian was hot.
She was just steeping herself in an international crock pot of crooks, but still “had enough balls to apply for this KlezKanada grant in the Laurentians, and —” What, you haven’t applied for a KlezKanada grant? It’s just one of the most prestigious programs in Yiddish culture in the world. Last summer, she did a workshop on music from Odessa and Istanbul and Warsaw, “these old underworld Yiddish songs. When I got back from KlezKanada, within a week I had a band formed and I had a show booked a week later.”
I’m guessing she wasn’t fluent in Ladino, the JudeoSpanish language spoken by … not many Montrealers. But it’s a risky guess, given her. “I spoke German already, so Yiddish was pretty easy to learn. Greek … because I spoke Spanish, I found them similar, for some reason. You speak enough languages and they blend together. I speak Cantonese a little, but that’s nowhere close to Khmer … it took me a long time to find a teacher in Montreal.” She also used a computer to teach herself phonetically.
“And I had to find some really great musicians to play that kind of stuff. I mean, the rhythms are weird.”
She comes by the musical wanderlust honestly. Her dad was a sailor. And for laughs, she found out via genealogical exploration that she was part-Jewish. “And I found out I was part Roma at the same time, so it’s even crazier.”
Fair enough. But what was the appeal of these songs?
“I was in punk bands for a long time, and these lyrics remind me of punk.” Also, she was confined to a mental institution for a time against her will, a story that’s clearly too long for this article. “But it was brutal, they inject things into you, they give you pills that you have to swallow. And I didn’t know a lot about patients’ rights then. I learned later that I could have left, I could have refused medication. But they don’t let you know. And the meds turned me into a vegetable. I couldn’t speak for an entire year.
“But I met a lot of people who’d been in prison, who told me there was a lot more freedom in prison than there is in a mental institution.” And she connected to the notion of prisoner.
“A lot of the songs (I heard) are prisoner laments. I can identify with people on the outskirts of society. I felt a greater connection with them than anything you’d hear from you’re typical love song.”
There was also a desire to shake up the oatmeal sententiousness of too much folk music. “The world music scene is just so hippie, you know? There’s no oomph to it. I like good hippie like anyone else, but they’re just so full of sunshine and buttercups. I wanted to bring an edge to it.”
And then there was an interesting element of cultural redress.
“Greeks have a pretty tough image, like Italians do. But it seems that, over time, I feel, the Jewish man has lost his edge. It’s very common to think of the Jew as a Woody Allen type of neurotic weaselly archetype, which I find very frustrating. Why is it that the Jewish women are the strong ones, but Jewish men have role models that are these weaselly guys? What about these hairy-chested nononsense wise-guy Jews as an option?”
Well, what about ’em? Giselle Webber is in their corner. She’s a polyglot. Her mother tongue is oomph.
Orkestar Kriminal launch Zontani! L’bin! Levende! at Lion d’Or, 1676 Ontario St. E., on Friday with Ira Lee and the Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra. Tickets are $12.50 in advance, available at Phonopolis, Sound Central, l’Oblique, Atom Heart, Cheap Thrills, or online at LaVitrine. com or $15 at the door.
Hairy-chested Greek mobsters and Jewish sharpies stalk Orkestar Kriminal’s debut EP, Zontani! L’bin! Levende!