Ben Caplan’s taking charge of his musical stock in trade

Ben Caplan. Photo: Jamie Kronick

It’s been about dozen years since Ben Caplan has seen his face. That’s the last time the hirsute singer-songwriter shaved off what is now a legendary beard.

“I didn’t have any problem with it when I shaved. And I certainly have no problem with my face. I intend to take it out again one day, maybe when the show wraps up.”

The show is the amazing success called Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story in which Caplan plays a Chagall-like mythically hairy master of ceremonies and narrator called The Wanderer, in the musical co-written with Hannah Moscovitch and Christian Barry of 2b Theatre Company in Halifax, N.S. (The play will be at the NAC next fall as part of the English Theatre season.)

The play has gone much further than Caplan expected, having been performed some 195 times in places like Edinburgh and New York.

It has been a life altering experience — “a change in degree not in kind,” Caplan said in an interview with ARTSFILE. “I have been touring quite extensively as a singer songwriter for past seven years. But it has been a big shift to be in the theatre world.

“It has made my schedule 10-20 per cent busier. To keep my music thing going I’ve had to shuffle it in between runs of Old Stock the play.”

Caplan is on one of those musical breaks from the theatre and he’ll be performing in Ottawa on April 10 in the NAC’s Babs Asper Theatre.

But he’s not that far removed from the stage. These days Caplan is touring an album of music from Old Stock.

“It has been a fun adventure figuring out how to arrange the songs created for the stage production for a slightly different context and how to present them in that different context.”

To that end, Caplan said, the music on the album has different instrumentation. That means the band he is playing with is changing and some of his older repertoire has been reinterpreted.

All of that has “really breathed new life into my artistic process. It’s also made the touring experience with the band really fun.”

He has enjoyed the “chance to break things apart and put them back together again.”

Caplan used to tour with a band that included an upright bass and a violin. This time out the bass has been replaced by keyboards and accordion (played by Graham Scott who is part of the theatre piece). The violin has been moved out and a clarinet, flute and saxophone has entered the fray, played by the Berlin-based Christian Dawid, whom Caplan says is the foremost klesmer clarinet player in the world.

“He also happens to be a slammin’ saxophone player and plays a little bit of that Kashubian mountain flute as well. Presenting him to Canadian audiences has been a lot of joy.”

In the old world version of Klezmer music, it would have been uncommon to have both strings and horns in the same ensemble, Caplan said.

“Basically, it’s a problem of presentation. How can you hear a violin when the brass is playing.

“It is a bit anachronistic but that’s not a problem for me. I’m all about smashing different things together and making new sounds with them but in this version of the band we didn’t have a violinist available for the tour, so we found arrangements that worked with a flute instead.”

To prepare the stage music for the CD, Caplan worked on new arrangements with people like Graham Scott and another Old Stock performer woodwind player Chris Weatherstone.

“I had a lot of sounds I had in my head but I didn’t have the notational skills to put on paper. So we did a lot of work with the band to workshop the arrangements and pull them into the world. I definitely relied a lot on the talent and artistry of both guys.”

Caplan said he was always planning to make a record from the Old Stock music.

“When Christian Barry called me up and asked me if I wanted to make a musical with him, I thought if this is going to work it also has to be my next album and something I can tour otherwise it would have meant taking a hiatus from my career and I didn’t want to do that.”

And it’s worked out. He’s been touring from Victoria to Halifax in the U.K., Australia and back to Canada.

The music matters to Caplan.

“There is this strange and uncommon complexity to the emotional quality of the music.  Even though it is happy, it also hits these intervals that evoke mystery and sadness that are all wrapped up into the happy feel. But there is also a way that some of the sadder songs have this uplifting tone to them that is not always present in a downbeat minor key song.

“That’s one of the things I love so much about the Klezmer idiom. There is this ability to have layered and complex emotions within the music. It is very true to life and an interesting thing to explore artistically.”

It’s also very much music of a people. The folk tradition in North America is often associated with performers like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.

But for Caplan, “folk music is really the people’s music. I really get off on different folk traditions from around the world, not just Klezmer but also different Roma styles, Balkan brass music all the different styles that come out of places like Bulgaria and Hungary.

“There are all these deep rich traditions that have been tested and layered and ‘complexified’ and added to over hundreds even thousands of years.”

There is a spiritual component.

“I certainly have a relationship with spirituality and religion. It’s not the primary driving force in my life but it is an important thing to me.

“I studied philosophy and I like to engage philosophically in deep questions and for me one of the questions that I love most about my relationship to Judaism is that it is a religion and a culture that encourages asking difficult and often unanswerable questions and sitting inside unresolved complexity. I get off on that.”

The play and this CD are speaking to an issue that is front and centre in the world today — the movement of peoples around the globe.

When Old Stock was being developed, “we couldn’t have guessed how much the themes that we were beginning to explore in late 2015 and early 2016 would come to be primary topics of discussion in the world. I guess we caught the right updraft.

“But it is a pity that that is the case. I don’t take any pleasure from the fact that these things are as important as they are right now.”

As student of history and as a student of cultural and historical currents, it was important for Caplan “to try to zoom in on a story on an individual experience as a way getting at the universal. Our goal in Old Stock is not to tell anybody how to solve a long standing, intractable problem. But to return to the humanity of the people who are having these experiences.”

The goal is to plant a seed in “someone’s mind. I think of myself as a bit of a Johnny Appleseed going around and trying to sprinkle these seeds and letting them grow into what they will.”

NAC Presents Ben Caplan with Geoff Berner
Where: Babs Asper Theatre
When: April 10 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.