Two klezmer fanatics and a microphone

A hip-hop producer and a punk rocker return profanity and fun to the genre

Two klezmer fanatics and a microphone

Photograph by Christopher Wahl

Josh Dolgin was scouring thrift stores in Montreal 10 years ago, searching for old records to sample in hip hop, when he discovered klezmer, the catch-all term for Jewish music of Eastern Europe. Until those crate-digging expeditions, the man credited by the likes of the Wall Street Journal with inventing a third wave of klezmer (the music’s first revival began in the ’80s) had never heard a note of that music: he grew up Jewish, but in rural Chelsea, Que. Now performing as Socalled, Dolgin began revelling in the novelty of mixing 80-year-old klezmer records with hip hop, sampling Yiddish theatre legend Aaron Lebedeff, even rapping in Yiddish.

Dolgin’s friend and latest collaborator, Geoff Berner, meanwhile, discovered the roots of klezmer driving around the back roads of Romania. Berner had learned klezmer and Israeli folk songs at Hebrew school in Vancouver, but as a teenager, he played in punk bands, ran as a Rhino Party candidate, and eventually became a Billy Bragg-influenced singer-songwriter with an accordion—a genre he had pretty much to himself. His song Light Enough to Travel was covered by West Coast trio the Be Good Tanyas, and he toured with country singers Corb Lund and Carolyn Mark—who inspired him to turn to his Jewish roots. Lund and Mark “were punk rockers who had taken the music of their heritage and applied their own aesthetic to it,” he says, “which turned out to be way more authentic than what was being marketed as country music. It seemed like something that ought to be done with klezmer.”

So when an invitation came to travel to Romania with a musical anthropologist, he jumped. The pair plied reluctant 90-year-old fiddle players with drinks and told them dirty jokes until they shared their songs. “I learned that the roots of the tradition are much more dirty and sexy and fun than much of the klezmer here,” he says. Inspired, Berner reinvented himself as a “whiskey rabbi” and started writing profane and political drinking songs, often set to traditional melodies.

Though Dolgin and Berner take wildly different approaches to the genre, the two Canadian kings of neo-klezmer joined forces last fall to work on Berner’s fifth album, Victory Party, released in March and produced by Dolgin. Two songs on the album are adapted from early 20th-century Yiddish folk songs. One is about the plight of sweatshop workers in New York City; to update the context, Berner invited a Chinese-Canadian singer to write lyrics in Mandarin. The other has new lyrics about RCMP brutality in B.C. with a chorus that sounds as if it’s borrowed from gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A.: “f–k the police.” It’s not a radical revision: the song’s original Yiddish title, Daloy Polizei, translates as exactly that. It nonetheless caused some walkouts when Berner played it live at the Ashkenaz festival in Toronto last fall. “I think that’s really healthy in music,” he says. “If you’re not eliciting that kind of response, you’re making music that everybody only kind of likes. Who would want to do that?”

If Berner is fine with drawing a line in the sand, Dolgin’s new album as Socalled, Sleepover, out May 3, aims for broad appeal. It’s a cross-cultural concoction where he finds common ground with an all-star cast of calypso kings, country singers, house music DJs, ’70s funk legends, Algerian pop superstars and Serbian brass masters, with klezmer elements only a part of the mix. Sleepover is a polyglot pop pastiche dance party that’s very much the sound of urban Montreal today. “At home I like listening to Jewish music from the ’20s and ’30s,” says Dolgin, who was the subject of a feature-length 2010 NFB documentary, The Socalled Movie. “But when I make music, I live in the 21st century. I don’t like closed-in ghettos. I’m just trying to make pop music.”

But even if he’s not comparing the mythical Golem of Prague to modern-day Israel, as Berner does on Victory Party, he says a Socalled record has its own agenda. “If you see all these people working together to make music, from different backgrounds and different places and different ages, that is political. But it’s at the service of catchy, emotional music. I’m not waving a flag.”

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