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When faced with an organist whose toupee had a life of its own and a "cantor who can't," Josh Dolgin created a new Jewish music for himself, and a new name, Socalled. Philip Palmer heard him in concert and in workshops in Krakow.

Since the inauguration of the Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture in 1988, some performers have almost become fixtures, as they appear year after year. There is little danger of the festival stagnating, however, if the organizers continue to invite such iconoclasts as Josh 'Socalled' Dolgin to give concerts and workshops.

He is probably best known for singing with and creating beats and samples for David Krakauer's Klezmer Madness. But the idiosyncratic and uncompromising fusion of hip-hop with Jewish and world music that he produces under his own name is beginning to attract a great deal of attention. In 2004, his Solomon and Socalled Hiphopkhasene even won a music critics' award in Germany for Best World Music Album.

His group, the Socalled Orchestra, played in the Tempel Synagogue in the heart of the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz on Tuesday 26 June. He also gave a couple of well-attended workshops on 25 and 27 June.

Seeing the elders of the local Jewish community squeezing their way to the front of the gilded synagogue before Tuesday's concert, I couldn't help wondering whether Socalled would water down the set a little to accommodate them. But, during the course of a refreshingly varied set that in turn embraced and rejected tradition, he cranked up the beats and sped up a sampled Jewish choir until they sounded like Smurfs.

Throughout the concert, he displayed a strong sense of the absurd, describing Montreal, where he currently lives, as a fantasy land of naked mounties, flying beavers and moose patrols. For those members of the audience who were not proficient in Yiddish, "I Like She," a cabaret song which he performed solo with accordion, contained amusing Fats Waller-style interjections that outrageously paraphrased the text for their benefit.

His selection of musicians for the Socalled Orchestra strongly reflect his esoteric tastes. They include saxophone player, Bucky Leo, who is a Nigerian born veteran of Salif Keita's band. Ganesh Anandan, who played percussion, was brought up in Bangalore where he studied the classical music of the region for many years. In addition to Socalled himself and the soulful Katie Moore, vocals are provided by C-Rayz Walz, a Brooklyn-based underground rapper who once burned his rhyme books to release his creativity. It appeared to have worked. His freestyle rap, which Socalled accompanied with piano that sounded strangely like sampled snippets of a midnight cocktail pianist, was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the concert.

The elderly man who I was using as a barometer to gauge the reaction of the older members of the audience even shook free his stubbornly folded arms to applaud after C-Rayz punched the air in jubilation after a job well done.

Video: Live at the festival

Socalled used most of the first workshop he offered to describe the circuitous route which he took to reach his current musical style. His early musical experiences were not positive. Synagogue was decidedly uncool. The discomfiture he felt when faced with an organist whose toupee had a life of its own and a "cantor who can't" were only partially relieved by the joy of discovering the music embedded in the religious text of the Torah.

Like "many upper middle class Jewish kids from the suburbs" he eventually turned to hip hop culture, classic funk and sampling, becoming fascinated with the way early pioneers had transformed their drab neighborhoods, "turning garbage into gold."

The moment of revelation came when he discovered that Jewish drummer Elaine Hoffman-Watts, who was 72 at the time, was able to create the funkiest beat. And she knew it. After sampling a studio recording of Elaine beating out the rhythm he had heard her play earlier, there was no going back.

Socalled is an avid collector of records of all styles and spends much of his free time when touring, trawling second-hand stores for unusual material that he can sample and add to his productions.

His excitement when discovering something to sample, whether it be a few complete measures or a simple snare beat, became evident during the workshops. In the first workshop he had invited participants to bring along something from their music collections that was potentially samplable so that he could create a track from the combined samples. C-Rays Walz would then rap over the top. Unfortunately the MC was unable to attend after over-exerting himself at the previous evening's post-concert party, so Socalled was limited to creating a track without live vocals, but this didn't appear to bother him much.

One of the participants brought along a DVD compilation of synthetic but atmospheric Azerbaijani and Albanian pop music to sample. Everyone present shared his obvious delight as a vocalist with a handlebar moustache and pointed hat theatrically swiveled on his cane while belting out a passionate ballad. It was practically begging to be sampled. Due to some technical glitches most of the other samples came from the huge collection of tracks and sounds stored on his laptop and sampler.

He ended by creating a groove which included a "virtual Elaine," funking it up, an extract from a traditional Rumanian doina and the man with the handlebar moustache. His technical explanations on the whole were very clear, but I have to admit I got lost a little towards the end of the final workshop as his fingers flew impatiently over his sampler. He did, however, make it clear that his productions generally take a few days of fine-tuning and tweaking before they are ready for public consumption. Taking this into account, the results were pretty impressive.

One participant in the second workshop asked Socalled how he managed to keep so much information in his head. “Because I'm a fucking genius,” he blurted out.

That's open to debate, but the fact that the elderly man who I had been using as a crowd barometer was intrigued enough to stay for the third encore is certainly an achievement in itself.
- Philip Palmer

Read about some of the other workshops at the Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture
Visit the festival's web site

Hiphopkhasene CD available from cdRoots

Photos: Pawel Mazur

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Photos: Pawel Mazur

Hiphopkhasene CD available from cdRoots


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