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Canada's 'Jewish cowboy' combines Klezmer with electro

Michel Viatteau

There is nothing ordinary about a Montreal disc jockey, rapper, pianist, accordion player, guitarist, magician and pioneer of Klezmerfunk.

“Frankly, there is nothing so unusual about being a Jewish cowboy,” begins a music video for You Are Never Alone, by DJ Josh Dolgin, also known as Socalled, which has so far been viewed online by 2.5-million people.

Maybe.

But there is also nothing ordinary about the Montreal disc jockey, rapper, pianist, accordion player, guitarist, magician and pioneer of Klezmerfunk—a blend of the music of Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe often played at weddings and contemporary electronic music.

The 34-year-old with eyeglasses, a receding hair line and a ring of unkempt hair has just released his fourth album, Sleepover, which blends funk, hip-hop, folk and of course, Klezmer.

The music is in his roots, as Dolgin’s grandparents moved to Canada from the Ukraine, Romania and Russia.

And he is pressed to wrap up his newest video quickly because he is scheduled to fly soon to Krakow to perform at an annual Jewish festival.

UNLVD, the first track on the album, was inspired by a Hasidic tune.

Collecting
Socalled sings it with Enrico Macias, a French musician born into a family of Sephardi Jews from Algeria. Macias was in Montreal for a concert in 2009 when his son, Jean-Claude Ghrenassia, a director and producer, invited Dolgin to meet him.

Dolgin confessed to wondering before their meeting: “Maybe he’s a big egomaniac? But no, he was humble, he was cool, he got into a car, came to my neighbourhood, to an Italian coffee shop and came to the record studio.”

Suddenly, Dolgin found himself “hanging out with [Macias’s] Algerian musicians,” pitching a few musical ideas to him and co-producing Macias’ newest album Voyage d’une Mélodie, (journey of a melody) released in March.

Although Jewish folk music appears to be woven into the fabric of his music, Socalled professes to be a layman with broad musical interests: hip hop, African-American music, also classical and world music.

His passion is “collecting old records”.

“People are getting CDs and throwing out vinyl. My parents had a big collection. Also I find records in the garbage, at the Salvation Army store.”

Living near Montreal’s Jewish quarter, it was inevitable he would eventually discover Yiddish theatre music among the discarded recordings.

“At first, I didn’t care where it came from, I was looking for anything different,” he explained. “I started to collect Yiddish theatre music, then synagogue music.”

A phenomenon
His last album Ghettoblaster featured Yiddish and Serbian lyrics.

But for the newest release: “I wanted to be understood by everybody, so I have done it basically in English, and some in French,” he said.

Pressed about his inspiration, he said: “I am trying to get away from ‘Are you Jewish, not Jewish, are you Canadian, who are you?’ I couldn’t care less. There are other stories that touch me and that I express through music.

“Sometimes I’m a ‘Jewish singer’, sometimes I play traditional accordion, and other times I just try to play popular music.”

In Krakow, Socalled will partner with Abraham Inc., a Klezmerfunk supergroup featuring clarinetist David Krakauer and Fred Wesley on the trombone.

“Abraham Inc. is at the same time the connection and the contrast between Jewish music and African-American music,” said Socalled, in other words a phenomenon as every day ordinary as a Jewish cowboy.—AFP

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