SoCalled (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 lets 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 its evident while hes talking that hes also pacing the room.
Hey, is this Josh Dolgin, Mister SoCalled?
Call me SoCalled, I insist.
Nice that were starting on this informal level. Ive 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!
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, everybodys using hip-hop. The loops and breaks and of hip-hop are easily applicable to all sorts of cultures - thats 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 its a global movement. But with klezmer, there is no community that actually listens to Jewish music anymore. Its 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! Im exaggerating. Theres 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 thats my community but I was just explaining why klezmer and hip-hop is not a thing that people would have gravitated to naturally. Its 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. Id 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 Ive ever done and Im so glad its over, because it was amazing, and some ways it was a total pain in the ass.
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 hes 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. Its the beginning of a larger project; the part on the boat was just the beginning.
It seems like an amazing idea.
Can you imagine?!! It was unbelievable. We had these concerts in town with local musicians and people that Id met over the years, because there are all these festivals all over the world, this Yiddish revival thing. You have these secret little retreats [laughs] for people who are all fanatical about it, its like any crazy, nerdy subculture. So Ive been meeting people all over the place, in Paris and Los Angeles and St. Petersburg, where these festivals are. I hooked up with some people from Ukraine, this amazing Gypsy brass band from Odessa, who played a concert in town and afterwards they came on board with us. We had 170 guests, people from around the world whod chosen to come on this crazy cruise, and this Gypsy band, these amazing musicians, real virtuosos.
And theyre still doing it, the tradition never ended.
They still doing it! And in fact their repertoire is heavily influenced by the klezmer repertoire; they learned it from their parents. Its all one family actually, uncles and brothers and stuff, and theyre from Odessa and the repertoire comes from the klezmorim who used to live there, mixed with their folk music and its like, whooooooo! Its the closest thing to the real thing in a way, even though its not Jewish anymore.
I was talking to Geoff Berner earlier this year and he was telling me of this trip he took with musicologist, Bob
Bob Cohen he was on my boat!
Yeah, they took a journey as well, but to Romania and the story is that many of the musicians who played with the klezmorim would have been Roma (Gypsy) as well, and also Jews would have played in their bands.
Well its a very long story. And its not that one was the other or the other way around its just that whooooooffh its a long story. Its a tragic, incredible tale. Its the beautiful, horrible story of Eastern Europe and culture and race and genocide. Theres nobody left. All the Gypsies got killed too, basically. But I forgot what I was saying.
We were talking about Bob Cohen.
Bob Cohen is amazing, it was good to have him on board. It was just a crazy team of super-powers. A super-power klezmer party. On a boat!
Did Bob Cohen have something to do with tracking down the musicians over there as well?
Bob Cohen? He was just chillin - I asked him to come and play violin. So he came with his awesome girlfriend Fumi [Suzuki] whos an amazing photographer. She took a million pictures. Actually his blog is the only documentation of the cruise right now, they did a really good job covering it its at dniepershlepper.blogspot.com.
So back to this idea of bringing hip-hop and klezmer when did it hit you?
Its this tale that I tell and I dont even know if its true anymore, now that Ive told it so many times but I just tell it automatically which is that I made hip-hop as a teenager. Sampling things, cutting up old records and then I find old Jewish records out of the blue. And Id never heard it before, all this Cantorial music and Yiddish theatre and klezmer, the dance music of European Jews before the war and Eeeeeeeee! so I found all these crazy records and they were full of these amazing things to sample and so I just started sampling them and I didnt think about it being a Jewish thing. I mean I thought it was sort of hilarious that it was Jewish because Id never heard anything cool that was Jewish before I started to find all these amazing old records. So, it really started when I started collecting these records.
Tell me about the amazing kids records that you used, I guess, primarily on the Pesach record. Theyre from the 50s or 60s? Do you know what Im talking about?
I do, I do. I have a million records, and a large part of the collection is just stupid kids records, kid-talkin records. And then I started finding a lot of Jewish kid-talkin' records. Like that whole album, The SoCalled Seder: A Hip-hop Haggadah came from basically finding one record, which was just packed full of ridiculous samples of these cheesy 1950s kids talking. But Jewish-style.
Oh yeah, so more cheese. Extra cheese.
[Pause] I dont know if Jews are such cheese people, actually ... I dont know if thered be extra cheese at a Jewish party. Know what Im sayin? [Laughs] Do Jews really give a shit about cheese?
Are we talking the dairy product at this point?
Like, I cant think of Jewish cheese! Like, they dont sell cheese do they sell cheese?!! Huh, Jewish cheese... Anyway, I then found this record by Irving Fields, the 93-year-old piano player. Hes truly incredible.
I love him. I saw him last summer in Toronto and he blew me away. Hes so wonderfully, thoroughly ridiculous and also such a serious entertainer.
Yeah, hes unreal. I found him because I had an old record of his, and somebody told me he was still alive. So I just looked him up in the New York musicians phone book, and there he was, and hes 93. And he told me, "Yeah, Im playing on Sunday. Come check it out.
Was that the Bagels and Bongos record?
Actually, I had More Bagels and Bongos, I never had the original Bagels and Bongos until lately. Now Ive got like 15 of his records.
Im curious about this, because its amazing that you brought Irving Fields into this project but you also have an amazing roster on this record. You have everyone in the klezmer scene! Im the hugest fan of David Krakauer, hes just an incredible player. And youve got Frank London on trumpet, and youve got Matt Darriau.
And [Theodore] Bikel. He sings the Beltz, Mayn Steylhe Beltz. With that introduction, he talks some serious shit. And I got Fred Wesley, did you hear him?! Thats insane. Hes my biggest hero of all time. He just wrote a book called Hit Me Fred: Recollections of a Sideman and its required reading. He talks about this album that he made in the eighties that never really came out properly, called House Party, and its a masterpiece.
On the second track on Ghetto Blaster, "(These are the) Good Ol Days, who is the woman singing with you?
Its Katie Moore all the way. Theres also a bunch of kids. Theyre cool, theyre from around the corner, around Esplanade. St. Viateur and Esplanade area, in Mile End.
Basically, you live at the [Club] Social.
When you first did this hip-hop klezmer thing, did it instantly make a connection with people, did it find its audience? Or were people at first like, "what the hell?
People are still, "what the hell? [Laughs] Theres been no instant nothing. The music at first was an experiment. It was an accident, and now its getting refined and turned into something that might be worth listening to. So maybe at first people were into the idea of modernising Jewish music. I play in a lot of festivals cause basically it [Jewish music] desperately needs reinvigoration of some sort, and hip-hop allows you to reference the past, and actually include all the old amazing stuff in a new way, which they didnt really do during the whole klezmer revival. The klezmer revival didnt really mean that you could hear the real thing any easier. They reissued a ton of stuff on CD and now you can buy Dave Tarras on Amazon. But ultimately it failed in its mission to ever make it a sound thats popular again: its never in movie soundtracks, you never hear klezmer unless its like a wedding scene or a take off on Jewish life, you know what Im saying? You never see it in a serious film, in the way that old jazz got credibility again. Amazing old jazz, you still hear it in soundtracks, people go to jazz school and study it at high levels. Its much harder to study klezmer at a high level.
But part of the reason that the revival didnt "take in this way is that people were so dedicated to the old repertoire, to doing the archaeological piece of it, discovering the old songs. Transcribing stuff and learning songs from old 78s so that they had the repertoire. There were a few bands in the 1990s that took it somewhere else.
If you talk to someone like Geoff Berner, he is very determined to write new songs, and go back to the kind of renegade spirit of the klezmorim.
Yeah, hes interesting because he, I think, is an amazing singer, has a fucking great voice and is an amazing songwriter but I dont really hear what he does as being necessarily klezmer. Maybe it has something to do with Yiddish folk-singing tradition, but like, klezmer is something else.
I would agree with you on that score with his prior records, but thats less true with the new one. For the most part its been lazy journalists saying, "Cool, Geoff Berner, klezmer punk. I dont think that he was necessarily there yet, when he was first being described like that.
Yeah, I see what you mean. I just never heard klezmer in his music.
You should check out his latest record; his violinist, Diona Davies, went with him and Bob Cohen, and learned the songs and the playing style from the very old men they found who still knew the repertoire. But I do have a question "Ich Bin a Border by mayn Vayb what does this mean?
It means, "I am a boarder at my wifes I pay the rent! Its a comedy song from 1927 about a guy who has a divorce from his wife, but now he lives there and pays the rent to his ex-wife. I mean, its completely ridiculous, I dont even know what Im saying (in Yiddish).
Also, I love "You Are Never Alone.
The cowboy song! Its a big hit, in France. They actually play it on the radio.
Thats interesting. Do you think its the cowboy aspect? In Europe theyre into country music anyway, so it could be their fascination with cowboys as well as the Jewish.
Ah, maybe - I never thought of that. Thats cool, Katie Moore will tear it up there. Shes on tour with me all the time and they love her. She kills it! And the other day I was in Los Angeles and Katie Moore was on tour with me, and in Los Angeles lives the other voice of that song, "You Are Never Alone. Her name is Doris Glaspie, and shes an amazing gospel singer but they had never met each other! I got them both to write some words to that melody, and recorded them separately and then mushed them together. So finally they were on stage together. It was unbelievable for me.
That is a beautiful song. Youve written a modern classic.
Well I didnt write the music actually, its an old Hasidic melody, written by the grand rabbi of a certain Hasidim, its is he Bobover? I think so. So its this old rabbis melody and I gave it to this amazing country singer, and then this amazing gospel singer and they wrote the words.
One question about the Gonzales track, "Slaughter on 10th Avenue.
No, thats me!
Oh thats you playing! Im sorry, I just made that assumption because it was piano.
No, but Gonzales was there and said I was playing this song and I wanted to sample it and he said, "Yo, just play it, man. Just play it and put it in there and people will like it, its just good to have a regular piano song. I thought it was good advice. Hes a fucking genius, so I just did what he said.
I was glad to see he and Irving Fields doing some shows together. I kind of feel like theyre doing a similar thing, but like 50 or 60 years apart.
Thats why he came back to play in Montreal, basically. Gonzales hadnt played in Canada yet really, since his solo stuff blew up. I said, "Yo Gonzales, theres this 93-year-old piano player who is gonna blow your mind! Wheeeeee! So that was an amazing night in Montreal.