Music Feature

A Philly Band You Should Know: West Philadelphia Orchestra

by Ryan O'Connell
Philly crew combines Balkan music, jazz, Brazilian, punk and more.

An oral history of West Philadelphia Orchestra, told by the band to magazine.

The idea was always that it'd be a community of musicians, never relying on any particular folks. Of course there's always a core, always a few guys handling operations, and always people leaving. (Jack Ohly is the only original member still on most gigs.)

I (Gregg Mervine) started the band in 2006. I met some folks at a West Philly bar who liked Balkan music. I met Jack talking about Romanian music outside a cafe one night. There was a jazz trumpet player, Kimbal Brown, and a colleague of mine from the Klez Dispensers, another band I was playing with at the time. On Sunday afternoons, I'd cook up a pot of borscht or chili, buy beers, and before long we were jamming on the porch and sounding decent. Then I spent about a year listening to all the Balkan records I could find, studying those, learning the tunes, and I wrote out charts of my favorite tunes which became the core repertoire of the band in the early days.

Around 2008, when we recorded our first record 'WPO,' we were unwieldy. Live sound engineers at local clubs were terrified of us. We'd have 2 violins, a viola, 2 or 3 trombones, saxophone, 3 or 4 trumpets, tuba, drumset, tapan, percussion, and vocals. And one trombone player would play 5-string banjo on some tunes, and Jack would switch between upright bass and drums.

15 (members): Gregg Mervine, Nezih Antakli, Jack Ohly, Francois Zayas, Jimmy Parker, Larry Toft, Steve Duffy, Brendan Cooney, Adam Hershberger, Koofreh Umoren, Patrick Hughes, Larry Goldfinger, David Fishkin, Elliott Levin, Petia Zamfirova

When the weather is nice, we rehearse outside in Clark Park (west Philly).

The biggest influence is our regular crowd in Philly. When we play a tune and the room explodes with energy and movement, that influences us, and watching people dance to what we do influences us. When people say “that new song is amazing, what is it?” that influences us. We're a village band. We aim to please the village. We hope the village keeps us.

The band was conceived in West Philly...not to mention some of its members were also conceived, born and raised in Philly. Most of the transplants have been living in Philly for at least 10 years and Philly has certainly helped to develop the members of WPO as musicians, artists and human beings. We have roots here. And you can hear that Philly soul when we play.

As a culture, we've forgotten how powerful acoustic, natural sounds can be; there's always electronics, speakers, an elevated stage, lights, smoke machines, and all these bullshit expectations between us and our experience. As a culture, we have a perverse relationship with electricity and power. Amplified instruments sound really bad in comparison with the natural vibrations that brass, woodwinds, and drums can produce; electronic instruments can produce interesting textures and moods, but the expression that raw instruments and voices are capable of is more profound.

If the crowd is dancing and really feeling it, doesn't matter where we will be a great time. But I guess Tritone was certainly one of our favorites. It was like our 2nd home and we really grew a lot as a band playing the monthly shows there for almost 5 years.

We have anywhere between 6 and 15 (band members) on a gig.

*photos courtesy of West Philadelphia Orchestra

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