Meet Toronto's troupe of gypsy-party-punk musicians
Lemon Bucket Orkestra made a bit of a splash in a little article this spring as the group of Klezmer -Gypsy-Balkan musicians who played an impromptu gig at Pearson airport...on a plane.
Toronto's Lemon Bucket Orkestra is made up of sixteen musicians from all different musical backgrounds who appear regularly on the streets of Kensington Market and at venues around the city, bringing their boundless energy and unique sound with them everywhere they go (including Romania).
I asked them to choose their favorite place in Toronto and meet me there to talk about how the band got together, their live airplane appearance and Romanian tour, and their upcoming show at the El Mocambo with the famed Providence marching band What Cheer? Brigade. So, on one of the most humid days of the year, we sat down near the gypsy caravan rickshaw outside La Palette on Queen with founding members Tangi Ropars and Mark Marczyk.
You chose La Palette as your favourite Toronto spot. How did you come to fall in love with a restaurant that serves horse meat, and what keeps you coming back?
Tangi Ropars (TR): Everything happened when I was busking in Kensington Market, where Shamez [Amlani, owner of La Palette]'s first restaurant was. He walked by a couple of times and he asked me to come and play for his wife's birthday party, and I was introduced to his friends. Then when he opened the second restaurant, he asked me to be a musician for the new restaurant. Of course I said yes, and I started to play as a duo with Mark every Wednesday. Now every month we play here at least once as a full band, on top of the bar.
Mark Marczyk (MM): When we started playing as a duo, it was around the time we were expanding and playing with other people, and Lemon Bucket Orkestra was forming. Shamez was always a massive supporter of the band and he always tried to get us involved with everything like Pedestrian Sundays and the black out anniversaries. He's been a bike and street activist for a long time.
He opened up La Palette to us, and it's the place where we got our start and were able to do what we really love: jump up on a bar and throw a party.
Can you tell us more about your spontaneous live appearance on a plane at Pearson airport?
TR: Well there was a first delay as they had to take some luggage out of the plane, and then a second delay happened. I was going to take some notes on Romanian language, and I went to grab my stuff and I saw the accordion, and said to myself, "I think it's time to play the accordion." I took it out, and all the band joined, and we started to jam on the plane, and people really loved it and went pretty crazy: there was a really good vibe in the plane.
MM: Part of it was that music is one way to deal with frustration and anxiety, and part of it was just for us to make an annoying experience into a fun experience - for ourselves and also for the passengers. Everyone was more pleased to be waiting on the runway than they were before.
How long were you on the runway for?
MM: The delay was about 40 minutes total, but we played for about 20 minutes. When we finished the pilot said "Thanks to the boys and girls who were playing in the back, we're now be off to Frankfurt."
How did you all come together as a band, and how did you find your unusual sound?
MM: Tongi, Os Kar, Alex and myself were playing in a gypsy punk band called The Worldly Savages, and the two of us were really missing traditional folk music. Tongi came from a Celtic background playing Breton music, and I'd just come back from two years in Ukraine playing Ukrainian folk music. We started teaching each other songs and playing at the after parties for our shows, and eventually the after parties eclipsed the actual parties: people started coming out and singing along and dancing and drinking and eating and having fun. The band organically grew out of that.
We try to do our own takes on traditional tunes from all over Eastern Europe. Some guys have a classic background, some have jazz, some are self taught musicians--there's a punk drummer, a guy who played for years in a samba band--we try to bring all those things together and bring it to the energy of Klezmer-Gypsy-Balkan music.
Any story behind the name of the band?
TR: A few, yeah. We had the first performance of the band at an open mic at The Painted Lady, where we played maybe two songs. Just before our set the MC asked us the name of the band, and we had no idea. Os Kar was standing there just saying "Yeah, rock it!" and the guy was like, "okay, Bucket, here's Bucket!"
MM: Another version of that: he asked me what we were going to be called and I said "I don't know man, fuck it," and he just said "okay Bucket, it's gonna be Bucket."
TR: After that, we had this great song we love called Lemon-Cheeky, from Odessa Ukraine, and it's a gangster kind of song -
MM: A hustler song. Lemons are slang for money, like, dolla' bills. So we spent a lot of time, and we still do, busking out in the street: we put out our bucket and work for our lemons. As for the Orkestra part: we wanted a big band. I think we said "we want thirteen people," and we started as two, and now we're an orchestra.
You just got back from a tour of Romania. How did that come about, and how was the tour?
TR: Romania is a country that represents a lot of what we do and the people we're influenced by: a lot of the best bands in Eastern European music come from Romania. It makes sense for us to go to the Balkans somewhere; a lot of people in the band had never been to these countries so we wanted to give them a taste of what's going on in Eastern Europe, and the culture there. We had a good connection [in Romania] who was really excited about bringing us there, and he organized a two and a half week tour for us.
It was amazing, it was really really really fun. We played in a lot of cities and people loved us: they were really surprised to see a band from Canada - first coming to tour in Romania, and then touring with traditional Eastern European music.
MM: They were kind of lost, it didn't make sense to them.
TR: They'd say "why do you like this music?" and we'd say "we just like it! it's just really awesome music."
MM: It gave people something to feel proud about in their own culture: that people from across the world are taking such a keen interest in not only playing the music, but in performing and bringing a new youthful energy to it and trying to spread it around in their own country, and ideally around the world.
Our first big show we opened for the biggest band in Romanian gypsy music Taraf de Haidouks, and we got a really good review of the show from like, the blogTO or Now Toronto of Bucharest, and from then on in we had fifteen shows in thirteen days and they were all sold out. The airplane video got us a little bit of attention too.
What's it like playing Balkan/Gypsy/Klezmer music in Toronto?
TR: It's fun - a lot of fun. The Balkan scene started to get more famous ten or fifteen years ago in some cities, but not in Toronto. In Montreal and New York it started maybe ten years ago, while here in Toronto it started three or four years ago. So it's a brand new thing here, and it's all over Europe and it's becoming one of the main types of music there. It's a lot of fun to play here in Toronto because people don't know about the music, but they love it no matter what.
MM: There's lots of people who have their roots in Eastern Europe: whether they're direct immigrants or their father or grandmother is from somewhere, or they have a friend who's Serbian or Ukrainian. So to finally be able to put something sonic and tangible to what it means to be part of that culture is really special to a lot of people. When I came back after seeing what Tungi was talking about in other cities - this interest and energy in Eastern European music - and not feeling it in Toronto, we decided: "Let's bring that energy, let's create the scene where there isn't one."
Rather than trying to create or find our way into a scene though, we were really focused on community: how can we bring these people together to celebrate culture, music, life, food, and all that. That's what brought us to La Palette: we met a guy who was equally interested in bringing culture out into the streets and into the bars. It's been really exciting to be doing that all the time and living that lifestyle.
What's the best part, and the hardest part, of being a member of The Lemon Bucket Orkestra?
TR: The worst part is the horns. The fucking horns.
MM: He means like, sometimes it's loud. Sometimes you want to be quiet and just play a quiet tune... but that's not even really a bad part, you know?
TR: What's great is you play all the time, everywhere, for different types of people, and the result is a lot of people enjoying it from little kids to older people. That's the best part: to be able to play for any type of generation, and to have that mix in the crowd at shows.
You're going to be playing with the Providence anarchist marching band What Cheer? Brigade on Sunday. Do you have any affiliation with them, or is this your first time playing together? Have they influenced your style?
TR: They came through Toronto last summer, and one of their members is Canadian. He got in touch with us and said "Hey, we saw some videos of you parading, and we love parades; do you want to do something together?" It was too late to organize a show, but we said yeah, let's do it, let's parade down Spadina, busk, and march people up to your show. So we did that, we traded off sets, they invited us to play a few songs with them, and then we kept that relationship going.
I wouldn't say it's a hard influence because we were doing our thing before we found out about them - even though they've been doing it for many, many years - but we have a really similar energy: they bring the punk, anarchist "let's do it here, now, without permission," but also the community vibe of "let's bring people together with music," and those two elements are really important to us.
When we ran into them when we were on the same bill on a festival in New York, the Golden Festival, it was a no brainer: we said yeah, let's organize a show together the next time you guys come [to Toronto]. And now, they'll be crashing on our couches and we'll be out playing in the streets I think beforehand as well: we'll make it a big city wide event.
Are you going to march down Spadina again? Or is there no set plan.
TR: I don't want to say there's a plan in particular, but we will be out marching somewhere. There's a very very good chance.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Favourite venue to play? Lula Lounge for the sound, but the street for energy.
Favourite late night snack? Pasta from the convenience store near our house.
East side or west side? West side!
Favourite record store? Sunrise Records at Dundas Square.
Favourite busker? Ramblin' Andy.
You can see The Lemon Bucket Orkestra do their thing opening for What Cheer? Brigade on Sunday June 24th at The El Mocambo, 464 Spadina Ave.
Photos one and two by the author. Subsequent photos from the band's Facebook page