The Lemon Bucket Orkestra in the main square of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, where they busked this week before two concerts to end their Romanian tour.
Chris Johnson/for the Toronto Star
ORADEA, ROMANIA—In a dark room with pockmarked walls, the local youth stare at the band in disbelief.
The 14-member band are doing something long forgotten by most Romanians — playing complex folk and Roma gypsy tunes, and belting out boozy choruses in Ukrainian, Serbian and other regional languages. But to the surprise of many, these minstrels are not Romanian old-timers. The Lemon Bucket Orkestra is mainly comprised of muscular Canadian party animals in their twenties who look and act like punks with long blond hair, neon mohawks, and a wild spirit formed in guerrilla street performances in downtown Toronto and most recently, on board a delayed Air Canada flight at Pearson International Airport.
“Isn’t it nice that a nice group of Canadians are playing nice music from your country?” band leader and violinist Mark Marczyk asks a crowd of about 150 on a Sunday night in May at Bar Mosckva in the baroque city of Oradea near the Hungarian border.
Though many in the audience can’t speak English, they understand the frenetic energy of their regional music performed with attitude by a brass band who, by the end of the show, are playing half-naked on bar tops. Drunk on wheat beer or shots of Palinka fire-water, the locals dance like mad and ask for autographs, CDs and posters after the show.
“I never heard of this band before, but when they went on top of the bar (to play), it was the best thing I’ve ever seen,” said Ibolya Kemenes, a teacher in a village near Oradea. “It’s like folk music for us. Bands from other countries in Europe mix in Romanian folk songs, but nobody makes such a good show.”
“It’s not something which we always see in Romania,” said Alafi Andrei, a hairstylist in Oradea with funky piercings. “It’s full of energy, and they play their instruments very well.”
The band (including — let’s make a full disclosure here — my brother Michael Louis Johnson on trumpet) are not the first Toronto act trying to conquer Europe. But unlike Broken Social Scene or other Canadian rockers who took Western music to Europe, the ensemble are trying to bring traditional melodies and phrases back to audiences accustomed to Céline Dion and Bryan Adams.
“We want people to appreciate their own music,” says Marczyk. “It’s great music, and the shows have been amazing.”
Turned off by rock bands who play 40-minute sets and go home, LBO will show up in a Romanian town, busk in a square, then do shows that spill over into friendly street parties or parades. Like the gypsies of yore, they pass around a hat, asking people “how much is music worth to you?”
Wading into the crowd, they form a circle, down shots of Palinka — a brandy — and belt out ancient anthems. The vibe becomes like a wedding party, or a class reunion of strangers with a common connection to forgotten roots. Nobody seems to leave or feel left out.
The impassioned response of Romanian audiences, especially in shows this week in Oradea, Arad, Timisoara and Cluj-Napoca, has surprised everyone who thought that traditional music had died years ago. “The Romanian bands I’ve seen are all playing rock ’n’ roll. They want to be Western groups,” says Emmanuel Plasseraud, a Paris-based filmmaker, who caught an LBO concert by chance during a film festival in Cluj-Napoca, and followed the band to Oradea.
“I thought they were a Romanian group at first, and I was surprised to hear they are Canadian. They play this traditional music very well.”
To promote the upcoming International Romani Arts Festival in Bucharest, Dan Olar, 25, a burly Romanian drummer and booking agent, wanted an energetic, danceable band. He knew some LBO members, such as accordionist Tangi Ropars and drummer Oscar Lambarri, from their previous tour in Romania with gypsy punk band Worldly Savages, and invited LBO with only about a month’s notice.
Marczyk, a 27-year old from Etobicoke, said “We have to go. We’ll find a way.” Having spent two years in Lvov, Ukraine, where he taught literature students about Neil Young and Tragically Hip lyrics, he wanted his bandmates to learn about the origin of their music — as well as regional issues such as discrimination against Roma gypsies, who’ve been kicked out of cities and live in forests and garbage dumps which even aid workers won’t enter. With only a few weeks to prepare for the 17-day tour, LBO busked in Yorkville and elsewhere in Toronto to raise $15,000 for plane tickets.
Then they got lucky. Their Air Canada flight to Frankfurt was delayed. The band knew what to do.
Known for marching out of Saturday-night gigs at La Palette onto Queen Street, LBO have played “guerrilla performances” on streetcars and Toronto subways. So, stuck on the tarmac at Pearson, they got out their instruments and performed four songs, drawing praise from passengers and supportive tweets from the Vancouver Opera, Calgary Folk Festival and even Air Canada, who tweeted: “We love Klezmer too! Thanks Lemon Bucket Orkestra for the impromptu performance.”
The video “Balkan Station,” shot by Toronto video-maker Joshua Barndt, accompanying the band on tour, drew more than 200,000 views on YouTube and was followed by appearances on CTV, CBC, CNN, Fox and Jimmy Kimmel Live, as well as in the newspapers USA Today and theDaily Mail and other media worldwide.
Their first show was with Taraf de Haidouks, a collective of Roma village musicians renowned throughout Europe but largely ignored in their native Romania. Instead of opening for their idols, they followed them, playing at the Silver Church club from 1:30 to 3 a.m. Hungover and jet lagged, LBO played four shows the next day, including an impromptu Canadian Embassy gig and a workshop with impoverished Roma gypsy schoolchildren.
Driving through Transylvania and the dangerous roads of the Carpathian Mountains, LBO played in an upmarket disco, a rooftop, and a riverside boat. Crammed into college dorms or hotels, sharing beds and floors, they slept only a few hours a night. One member twisted an ankle, another flew to Holland with food poisoning, while another pulled a chest muscle by vomiting too hard.
But like the cold roads of cross-country Canada tours that make or break Canadian bands, LBO’s European journey has galvanized the ensemble behind its mission of popularizing traditional culture.
“Being completely out of our comfort zone has accelerated the process of understanding each other,” says Marczyk, who calls LBO a family. “Any tour will have difficulties, especially for a 14-piece band. This trip has really opened up people to solving problems.”
The key, he jokes, is to “find out what the local drink is, and drink it. You will attract locals, and gel together as a band.”
After Monday night’s show in the funky courtyard of an apartment complex in Olar’s hometown of Arad, the band downed shots of Palinka, ate some awful shawarmas and sat by a pond listening to frogs until sunrise. The next day, Olar and a few hungover band members got lemons tattooed on their bodies.
Though shows have been packed with mad dancing and cheering crowds, the band made little money at first. Even a Roma street urchin, hawking CDs on a highway under construction, refused to take theirs in order to sell pirate copies of it, saying “It’s Romanian old-time music. I can’t sell it.”
But after Tuesday night’s performance on a riverboat in Timisoara, a crowd of about 200 bought 48 CDs. On Wednesday night, crowds went crazy during their three sets in Cluj-Napoca.
LBO are set to record their first full-length album right away in Toronto with Michael Phillip Wojewoda, who produced the Barenaked Ladies and Ashley MacIsaac. But first, to mark their triumphant return to Pearson: LBO invited more than 5,000 friends on Facebook to a “concert” at the arrivals gate, which they played Thursday without prior permission from police or airport authorities, after their flight arrived.
Though burning out from two weeks of madness and little sleep, LBO members are already talking about returning to Europe to build a fan base with a full album to tout. One new fan in Zalau asked them to do a “wedding tour” of Romania next summer, while an elderly gypsy lady in Bucharest, who bought their CD for 20 lei (about $6), told them “Our grandchildren must hear this.”
For the mad trad punks of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, it was music to their ears.
Lemon Bucket Orkestra has several local gigs coming up, starting June 13 at Koerner Hall and June 16 at David Pecaut Square. See lemonbucket.com