In a detour from our usual reviews of plays, Anna Lytvynova profiles Lemon Bucket Orkestra
Active Folklore and Cultural Revolution: Lemon Bucket Orkestra drums out for peace
July 28 – Camp Summerdaze – King City, ON
August 4 – Rimouski, QC
August 8 – Edinburgh, UK
November 9 – Richmond Hill, ON
A Ukrainian ballad, a Middle Eastern darbouka, and a recording studio in Waterloo, Ontario -these multi-coloured pebbles come together in every performance experience by the Lemon Bucket Orkestra. The work of this self-proclaimed “balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk-super-band” goes beyond entertainment: it unites music, theatre, art, and activism. The resulting mix is a powerful one – a far-reaching artistic effort for inter-cultural peace and understanding.
What started as a quartet of enthusiastic troubadours quickly expanded to a multicultural, 12-member “super band”. Members of the collective come from a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds including Ukraine, Russia, Toronto, Montreal, and Mexico. With such an array of cultures, their work is both trans-national and culture-specific.
But what does it mean to be culturally-specific in a multicultural environment? For Lemon Bucket, it means spelling “orchestra” with the traditional Eastern-European “k”. It means borrowing cultural songs from a variety of cultures and giving them a punk twist while staying grounded in the folklore they came from. It means not shying away from difference while staying engaged with the current social climate.
At a recent outdoor concert in Montreal’s Parc Kent in Côte-des-Neiges, the audience is spellbound by a multitude of sometimes contradictory experiences. The high-pitched lyrical vocals of Eastern Europe are intertwined with the deep sounds of Middle Eastern drums. Some musicians energetically jump to the beat while others melodically swing their heads from side to side. A Russian military ballad gets unexpectedly interrupted by the fast-paced staccato rhythm of a joyous song. Instead of uncontrollable chaos, Lemon Bucket creates a celebration of difference . Their music acknowledges and respects tradition while also critiquing, questioning, testing, and twisting it. It witnesses the past, honours and celebrates it, and throws a party.
While the stripped-down outdoor version of their show did not do justice to the multi-form and immersive nature of their work, it did allow for a return to simplicity. The ensemble’s vocalist and dancer Stephania Woloshyn came down to dance in a happy circle with the children in the park and the passers-by were welcomed to join in. Without the extravagant theatricality that is usually present in Lemon Bucket’s concerts, the power of the music was allowed to exist in its purity. What the group ultimately delivers is far from performative showmanship alone– it is the very real result of building bridges between cultures.
If diversity is the critical attitude guiding a work, it must be an aesthetic as well as a practice. It must be about content as much as it is about form. It must be present in the stories and experiences that are being told, not just in the way they are represented. Diversity is an integral, intersectional, and complex goal. To be socially transformative, it must be engaging, both to the artists themselves and to the community they are woven into. As flugelhorn player and founding member Michael Louis Johnson remarks, “multiculturalism […]is not simply the acknowledgement of many cultures and races. It must be a celebration of those differences […] Everyone needs to be accepted as different and celebrated in their culture ” (Johnson, Michael Louis. Interview. 17 July 2017).
But practice requires a different approach than does theory. How should an artist acknowledge their traditional culture(s) when they are playing for diverse audiences whose members range from Serbian immigrants longing to hear the music of their roots to music fans looking for new sounds? How do artists balance specificity and relevance? With every song, the Orkestra makes the choice of re-inventing the old while never letting go from tradition. In a bursting effort to propel our society forward, it calls its audience to reconcile the past. And they do so note by note, one musical contradiction by another. The Lemon Bucket’s approach of mixing (as opposed to blending) cultures is an approach of integrity.
In the work of Lemon Bucket there is a marriage of novelty and ritual, education and entertainment, art and politics. The work goes far beyond the scope of a band, albeit a self-proclaimed super band. The sounds of diverse traditions peek through the levity of their music. Their recent and astounding, multiple-award-winning production Counting Sheep (lauded by Edinburgh, the Doras, and Amnesty International), used immersive multi-genre performance to transport its audience into the heart of the revolution and war-struck Kyiv. The more simple dynamics of a park concert calls for cross-cultural understanding and peace by focusing on the affectual impact of the music rather than on a production’s aesthetics. In either case, the artists create meaningful multicultural work with their at times grim yet colourful rainbow of contemporary folklore.
The Lemon Bucket Orkestra does much more than play old songs in a new arrangement. It exemplifies how art, dare I say popular art, can and must be socially and politically engaged. It can and must be re-imagined, re-transformed, and kept alive in order to remain powerful.
ANNA LYTVYNOVA is a young director, researcher, and dedicated theatre maker. She has recently completed her degree from McGill. With a background in dance, directing, and business, Anna combines physical theatre, research, and cultural efforts in her work. She has directed several plays including When Five Years Pass by García Lorca. Her current directing and research work is dedicated to the performance of (multi)culture, marrying action and performance, and bridging the gaps between research and practice.
Note from Alt.theatre’s Reviews Editor:
Former Lemon Bucket Orkestra member Chris Weatherstone plays a critical musical and dramatic role in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, a new work written by Hannah Moscovitch with original music by Ben Caplan and the show’s director Christopher Moore. Produced by Halifax’s 2b theatre company, it is a Klezmer-driven, dreamy, and gut-wrenchingly relevant memory epic about family, loss, hope, and courage. Stay tuned for more about this production which captivated audiences at Canada Scene 2017. Future dates include a production in Edmonton at the Citadel Theatre’s CLUB May 9-13, 2018.