By Helen SpitzerSoCalled (aka Josh Dolgin) has been crazy about making beats and collecting records since his student days in Montreal, but his path toward blending hip-hop with klezmer, the traditional music of prewar European Jews, was anything but intentional. Taken aback by the immediate response in Europe to his first record, Hip-Hop Khasane, he found a fan (and future collaborator) in klezmer heavyweight, David Krakauer, and began performing internationally at klezmer festivals. After his Passover-themed album The SoCalled Seder, he set about a more musically ambitious project, blasting a path from hip-hop to the many traditions within Jewish music, including Yiddish theatre: bringing the melodies of his ancestors to the hip-hop massive with a little – let’s admit it – geeky soul. The result is his most recent album, Ghetto Blaster, which does just what the title suggests: frees Jewish music from the sole provenance of musicologists and klezmer geeks. Josh Dolgin checked in with Exclaim! over the phone the day he returned from his European tour, where his album is getting radio airplay and even spawned a mini-hit in France. Wildly exuberant, Dolgin has a habit of punctuating his sentences with odd eruptions of "Wwweeee!” and "Whoooooof,” and it’s evident while he’s talking that he’s also pacing the room.
Hey, is this Josh Dolgin, Mister SoCalled? Call me SoCalled, I insist.
Nice that we’re starting on this informal level. I’ve gotta say first of all, that I was very excited when I first heard about you. Back in ’97 I went to the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, and I remember thinking that I really wanted someone to bring hip-hop and klezmer together. And now here you are! Right on!
How has this not really occurred to anyone before? Because klezmer is a little different in that the style itself is dead. Nobody really remembers how to play it anymore. It used to be this huge vibrant tradition and community, and it had this crazy high level of musicianship, and it all got lost. But all across the world, everybody’s using hip-hop. The loops and breaks and of hip-hop are easily applicable to all sorts of cultures - that’s why we have Indian hip-hop and Ukrainian hip-hop and hip-hop in Morocco. They use their own rhythms and add fat beats, and it’s a global movement. But with klezmer, there is no community that actually listens to Jewish music anymore. It’s not a real living music tradition that could have evolved naturally.
I have to question this, because there has definitely been a klezmer revival happening. Oh sure! I’m exaggerating. There’s this little movement called the klezmer revival that happened in the 70s and 80s. These people got interested in klezmer and started studying it again, but that was after it had been lost long enough for everyone to have forgotten what it was. There was no more old country for everyone to go back and draw from. Yes, the klezmer revival is still rocking and I come out of that tradition too, because that’s my community – but I was just explaining why klezmer and hip-hop is not a thing that people would have gravitated to naturally. It’s not out there, popularised. You gotta do this whole archaeological step before you can make music.
So speaking of archaeology and cultural excavation – am I right that you went on some kind of crazy klezmer boat cruise - in the Ukraine? Totally! Yes! My grandfather is originally from this little town in the Ukraine. I’d been getting into klezmer music and Yiddish, and at some point I said, "Yo dad, we gotta go see this place in the Ukraine, where your father was from.” He got into the idea, and so about three years ago my parents and me went and hung out in this weird little town. [I had played festivals in Europe] but while we were there I thought, "Now this would be the place to put on a klezmer festival, or to bring Yiddish – to bring the culture that used to live here and that people are really interested in again – bring it back to this place.” There we were, on this river that my grandfather had talked about, the Dnieper, and I started to imagine a boat full of musicians coming down the river and doing concerts along the way. My dad got into the idea and organised it with this existing Mennonite heritage cruise thing from Winnipeg – long story – and we went on the damn boat for 12 days! Down the Dnieper River, and it was crazy! It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done and I’m so glad it’s over, because it was amazing, and some ways it was a total pain in the ass.
But why? It was just being on this boat, the ramifications. And I was with my parents and tons of my family, and we had to do these concerts and there was a film crew along making a movie about the whole situation and it was like … whooooofff! [laughs].
Tell me about the movie. There is an old professor of mine - not that he’s old but he was my professor back in the day at McGill, Garry Beitel, who makes movies in Montreal. He started following me around and he came on the boat. It’s the beginning of a larger project; the part on the boat was just the beginning.