Klezmer gets a jolt of yo from hip-hop Canadian

Those raised on traditional klezmer might get jolted to their feet. That’s because Josh Dolgin, part of the latest wave in the ongoing revival that first began in the ’70s, is taking the Jewish musical form to places it’s never been before. Call it, if you will, the hip-hop-ification of klezmer.

Taking classic klezmer tunes and putting them to hip-hop beats is what Dolgin began doing in college — to avoid studying.

“I didn’t consciously think ‘I’m going to make Jewish hip-hop,'” said Dolgin in a phone interview from Montreal. “It was more about not doing my schoolwork. It was the thing I did for fun, late at night.”

Dolgin will appear numerous times during the upcoming Berkeley Jewish Music Festival: on opening night at U.C. Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium with klezmer clarinet virtuoso David Krakauer; with mother-and-daughter klezmer musicians Elaine Hoffman Watts and Susan Watts Hoffman at the Berkeley Richmond JCC, and in a concert for teens at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. The festival runs from March 20 to 27.

So how does a musician make the leap from hip-hop to klezmer? Even Dolgin, 27, admits it’s odd. “It’s kind of funny how rap got me into Jewish music rather than the other way around.”

But he’s the kind of guy you see at thrift stores, flea markets and yard sales. You know the type, rifling through the boxes of old vinyl records for sale — he has about 4,000 — looking for old tunes to sample and set to electronic beats.

One day he bought a Yiddish record — an Aaron Lebedeff album — and he couldn’t believe his ears.

“He was this great Yiddish theater star from the golden age of American Yiddish theater and there were these great breaks in the record; it was a natural,” said Dolgin. “The songs were packed with these amazing loops and noises and stuff.”

And from there, he kept looking for others. Dolgin wasn’t content just to sample the songs. He began to take a real interest in them. “As a musician, I wanted to know the music,” he said.

In addition to his sampling, Dolgin plays numerous instruments, including the accordion. So when he attended KlezKanada, an annual camp for klezmer musicians, he slipped an example of something he had done called “Hip-Hop Seder” to clarinetist Krakauer.

“Usually you give someone your demo and they don’t listen to it,” said Dolgin, who had taken a class with Krakauer. “But, like an hour later, he attacked me and said, ‘You blew my brain onto the wall,’ or something like that. It was exactly what he was looking for to really kick klezmer in the ass a little, and make it relevant for today.”

Krakauer didn’t quite put it that way, but he definitely heard something in Dolgin’s creation — even some of himself. That’s because in his demo, Dolgin had sampled Krakauer.

“I was completely blown away,” said Krakauer, of Dolgin’s “Hip-Hop Seder.”

“This is a major work of art here, just an incredible thing. I’ve been pushing in those kinds of directions, but he’s a real pioneer and progenitor and master of hip-hop klezmer, and the spearheading person of this movement.”

Krakauer’s discovery of him has definitely taken Dolgin’s career to the next level.

“He’s the man, he hooked me up. Without him I’d be nothing,” Dolgin said, only half-jokingly. “He was the one who had faith in what I did, and could see that what I was doing could have appeal. He took me out of Canada and gave me exposure.”

Dolgin — who often goes by his DJ moniker “Socalled” — is actually an aspiring filmmaker. He didn’t expect that his late-night musical hobby would get him this far.

But it did. “People have been really into it,” he said. “It’s been sucking me into this weird world and I’ve been flomping” — a word Dolgin made up — “all over the world, to generally positive reaction.”

Krakauer took Dolgin to Krakow, Poland, last year, to play at a Jewish cultural festival, an experience that Dolgin says still “freaks me out a bit.”

“It’s like the trippiest thing to imagine playing Jewish music for 20,000 Polish people in a town where there were so many Jews and now there’s so few. So I feel like a combination of an ambassador and a clown.”

But at the same time, he said, “The people were so into it, it was amazing. They were totally freaked out over the music. It was really cool to try to bring some Yiddish back to those streets.”

A live recording of their performance, “Krakauer: Live in Krakow,” is out on France’s Label Bleu.

He also teamed up with British violinist Sophie Solomon to make “HipHopKhasane,” which came out last year and features Krakauer and other contemporary klezmer stars like Frank London playing wedding tunes. The CD on the German Piranha label landed on the European world music charts.

Growing up on the outskirts of Ottawa, in Chelsea, Dolgin was the only Jewish kid in his school. The Reform synagogue where he became a bar mitzvah was 40 minutes away. He took piano lessons from childhood onward, and in elementary school, he began learning clarinet and trombone.

“I started to play in weird bands in junior high,” he said, with “weird” meaning everything from salsa and gospel to folk and rock. Then, in high school, he got into hip-hop, and began rapping.

The first song he wrote was called “The Jew Funk,” which included the lyric “Baruch ata Adonai motherf—-r.” He also rapped the V’ahavta prayer.

“I wanted to represent myself in the rap,” he said, by way of explanation. So he rapped about what he knew. “I couldn’t rap about guns and chasing police and stuff.”

When asked whether his more purist colleagues have objected to what he does, he said no, giving evidence that he still plays with his more traditionalist colleagues, as he will in the Berkeley festival.

“I can’t be dishonoring the music that much, as I play traditional klezmer, too. I don’t say that what I do is klezmer,” he said. “I’m just trying to do something for me and my peeps.”

Josh Dolgin performs a concert for teens, “Socalled on Second Avenue,” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 17, at Temple Isaiah, 3800 Mount Diablo Blvd., Lafayette; with David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 20, at Wheeler Auditorium, U.C. Berkeley; and the Kinetic Klezmer Jam with Elaine Hoffman Watts and Susan Watts Hoffman at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 25, at the Berkeley Richmond JCC, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. The box office opens March 1 for BRJCC members, March 4 for the public. Information: (925) 866-9599, or brjcc.org.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."