Live from Montreal, it’s Socalled!

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When I finally connected last week with the multitalented composer and musician Socalled, he was in a Montreal rehearsal space, scoring music for his new show titled The Season.

“I’m making a musical and I’ve never done such a thing before, and it’s with puppets and dancers and actors; and I just wrote all this original music for, basically, like, a string quartet, a harp and a drummer and a bunch of singers,” he explained. “We’re performing it one time, next week.”

A Web site announcing the show, which was performed Sept. 25, describes the two-act piece as telling the story of “a close-knit crew of forest animals as they prepare for winter and the oncoming hunting season and are faced with a new threat: an infestation of aliens from another planet. A forbidden love develops between Bear, a bear, and Tina, a feisty, fiery, helpful little red furry thing from beyond the stars. Will their love survive?”

The show sounds like something right up Socalled’s funhouse alley. The astoundingly original artist has gained a global reputation for contemporizing traditional klezmer music with beats, samples, rap and funk accoutrements. He has a devoted following across his native Canada and in Europe.

Socalled, a.k.a. Josh Dolgin, will make another foray south of the border on a tour that includes an Oct. 11 date at the Cedar Cultural Center on the Minneapolis West Bank. For those who enjoy music, Yiddish, klezmer tunes, rap, funk, gorgeous vocals, or simply a weird cultural experience, this show should not be missed.

Socalled: I actually wrote some normal songs almost. (Photo: Pierre Terrasson)

During a telephone interview with the AJW, Socalled discussed his musical collaborators; his new album, Sleepover; the music of Kurt Weill and several other topics.

For his Cedar show — a stop on a U.S. and Canadian tour in support of his new album, Sleepover (Dare to Care Records) — the lineup will include Socalled, piano, accordion and sampler machine, vocals and rapping; Katie Moore, vocals; Patrice Agbokou, bass; Michael Winograd, clarinet; and Allen Watsky, guitar.

Socalled could not recall ever playing in Minneapolis — “although I think I have family there somehow,” he commented. Likewise, I don’t recall klezmer clarinet virtuoso Winograd ever playing here. The Sleepover album notes contain a brief bio for Winograd: “Young freaky clarinetist genius composer performer.” Winograd has played with many of the great klezmorim, and his talents can be enjoyed on his album Bessarabian Hop.

Agbokou is from Togo and grew up in Canada. He lends an indie-rock sensibility to Socalled’s music. “Patrice is from Montreal and I play with him in Canada,” Socalled said. “But he’s just so good and indispensable that now he’s become my bass player in America; and, hopefully, I’ll bring him to Europe someday, too.”

And Socalled met Allen “Wawa” Watsky at KlezKanada, a summer klezmer camp in Montreal. “He was playing violin… and I was playing accordion, and we were jamming, and it was cool,” he recalled. During Socalled’s workshop on modernizing klezmer with beats and samples of old Yiddish tunes, Watsky “had amazing things to say.” It turned out that Watsky, “a white Jewish guitarist,” had honed his funk chops with various black bands in Denver during the ’70s.

“That was his music: funk; and that’s sort of my favorite kind of music… but we both love klezmer and Jewish music,” Socalled commented. Watsky’s approach, it turned out, fit into his hybrid musical scheme. “He’s one of those missing links that really glues together a bunch of different styles.”

Socalled added that Watsky is the guitarist in Abraham Inc., a klezmer-funk ensemble that features Socalled; trombonist Fred Wesley, music director for the legendary James Brown band, from 1968-1975; and David Krakauer, who takes klezmer clarinet into the stratosphere. The Abraham Inc. album is called Tweet Tweet.

Katie Moore, “the voice of Socalled,” was featured on the artist’s 2007 Ghettoblaster album, which included the hits “You Are Never Alone” (check out the amazing YouTube video for the song) and “The Good Old Days.” Socalled simply says Moore “is awesome.” The Sleepover album features Moore’s lovely vocals, including an affecting duet with Socalled on “Springhill Mine Disaster,” a song written by Peggy Seeger.

“It’s a bit of Canadiana… a bit of Canadian culture,” remarked Socalled, about the beautiful song with the foreboding lyrics. He added that Theodore Bikel (who sings a revamped version of “Belz” on Ghettoblaster) turned up at the Sleepover CD release party in Montreal, and joined Socalled and Moore in a live rendition of “Springhill Mine Disaster.”

An element of Socalled’s genius lies in his ability to assemble a roster of stellar, and often neglected, artists for his projects. These musicians range from nonagenarian pianist Irving Fields, who recorded Bagels & Bongos for Decca Records, in 1959, which sold two million copies; pianist Chilly Gonzales (né Jason Beck), who set a world record in 2009, for the longest solo-artist performance (27 hours, 3 minutes and 44 seconds), and is now famous for his song “Never Stop,” which is featured in iPad commercials; and the previously mentioned funkmeister Fred Wesley (who also wrote the overture for Socalled’s musical, The Season), along with too many others to name here.

In 2010, The ‘Socalled’ Movie, a feature-length documentary directed by Garry Beitel, and produced by the National Film Board of Canada, enriched the mystique of the Montreal-based musical mixmaster.

Regarding the film, Socalled mentioned that it enhanced his popularity in Canada, France and Germany; however, he said, “I have not yet to blow up and turn into an international superstar.”

So he’s still no Lady Gaga, blowing up-wise; but the film was able to “open up people to weird stuff that they probably never heard of… I see [the film] as the opportunity to showcase these amazing people that I’m lucky enough to work with, like Fred Wesley, and David Krakauer, and Arkady Gendler [an elderly Yiddish singer from Bessarabia].”

In addition to Ghettoblaster, Sleepover and the Abraham Inc. album, Socalled’s recorded oeuvre includes Solomon and Socalled: Hiphopkhasene and The Socalled Seder. He also recently helped produce the album Voyage d’une mélodie by French singer Enrico Macias, an Algerian Jew who sings tunes in Hebrew, Yiddish, Tamzight (Berber) and a half dozen other languages. Voyage includes “Tu n’es pas seul au monde,” a French version of Socalled’s “You Are Never Alone.”

Asked about future projects, Socalled mentioned that the Sleepover album was more than three years in the making, so he’s content to “let that simmer for a while.” But he’s “always making beats… always producing stuff.”

And he’s also writing songs. “I guess that’s what’s new about this record [Sleepover], is that I actually wrote some normal songs almost.”

Socalled also looks forward to making “just a rap record, ’cause I realize that I love rap music,” in addition to the “weird hybrid pop, funk, hip-hop house” music, which is the sound he’s been developing for himself and others.

“I’m also addicted lately to Kurt Weill,” Socalled added, and specified that he’s learning “mostly his Broadway stuff, not really the German stuff.” Weill is not as well known as Cole Porter, George Gershwin or Rodgers and Hammerstein, according to Socalled; but “his songs, there’s a darkness and a sinister beauty to them all.”

Socalled’s upcoming show at the Cedar promises to be a milestone on the 2011 local cultural calendar.

“We’re going to try our luck in America again, see what happens, if we can get some people out, check it out,” Socalled said.

Socalled and his band will perform 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11 at the Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis. Local rapper Carnage the Executioner opens the show. For tickets, call 612-338-2674, ext. 2, or go to Ticketweb. The American Jewish World is a media sponsor of the Socalled show.

CORRECTION: Show date changed to October 11.