Jewish Journal

Krakauer & Wesley & SoCalled: The funky seed of Abraham

Ian Shulman

April 9, 2012 | 11:53 pm

Each of them alone could be a headliner of any festival. David Krakauer, clarinet magician and klezmer legend of The Klezmatics; Fred Wesley, funk master and James Brown’s composer, and SoCalled, Jewish Canadian rapper and experimentator. You don’t even need to a rapper C-Rayz Walz to make the mixture explode and rock the splendid Furth Town Theater building. Once upon a time, jazz music was simultaneously shaping by similar and different, Yiddish and African-American experiences. Abraham Inc. shows how easily the prototype of the first, klezmer, can merge with the products of latter - funk and hip-hop. A revival, a reunification, a rethinking - none of these are actually standing behind the music. What really drives the musicians is the deep love to their music, openness, freshness and curiosity. So they are behind the scenes - friendly, talkative and excited with the things they are doing. David, SoCalled and Fred on roots, experiments, bubamaises and Abraham.

Ian: I am happy to have a chance to interview all three of you together. Frankly, when I first heard about the band, I though it’s a bit of a strange idea. All three of you are great musicians, each sounds perfect in his own style, but I wasn’t sure how good it all sounds together. It appeared to be much more than I could have expected. I’d like to start with a question which I was discussing with Frank London yesterday: what klezmer actually is? Is there something which can cover all those styles which were present at the festival during those days? Is there something in common?

SoCalled: Klezmer is technically Eastern-European instrumental dance music, which surrounded the Jews and which they were a part of. All that Ukrainian, Serbian, Romanian, Russian, Bulgarian music. And then, of course Roma, Gypsy music, which influenced the Jewish music. The music for celebration, cantorial synagogue music; technically all that is what klezmer music is. That’s the style, because Jewish music is something entirely different. Jewish music could be Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, could be Sephardic music or African music, the music of Ethiopian Jews. Jews are weird, because they are the culture, they are the race, they are the religion. Jewish music can be all those things, but klezmer is Eastern European Jewish dance music.

Ian: So does this mean that for you the festival which is taking place now is more like a ‘Jewish music festival’ then a ‘klezmer music festival’?

SoCalled: Sure!

Ian: Good then. I’m just asking this question because it’s something which amazed me as well. It’s all too broad to be labeled by one name, be it klezmer or whatever.

SoCalled: The word ‘klezmer’ just means ‘musician’, so in a way the word klezmer was flapped on this Eastern European Jewish music, but in a way it’s not about a word for all types of jewish music.

David: Well that’s a bit loaded. Certain people may say ‘oh, i’m playing Gershwin, so it’s Jewish, so it’s klezmer. I think that the first thing you said is very important, because there is a specific style. I got to the klezmer music through my work with The Klezmatics in the late 80s. There was a certain klezmer revival in the United States and also in Argentina with Giora Feidman and so on. People say: ‘oh wow, there was this old Ashkenazi Eastern European Jewish music, let’s do it again, let’s bring it back!’. There were actually different bands in the mid 70s bringing it back, almost duplicating the records, which was cool, just like being able to hear it live. Older people were happy about it. Then The Klezmatics came and there was this desire to innovate the music, to do it differently, to play it electric etc. The thing is that now, over the past 25 years I’ve observed that klezmer, more then let’s say sephardic music, Buchari Jewish music or mountain music from Azerbaijan, became a sort of catalyst, which made people curious. So they call it a klezmer music festival, but there is a spectrum. Klezmer is just a handy word, but as I observed it, there was a catalyst from klezmer music, which has exploded in many different directions.

Ian: Speaking about directions and styles. Can you possibly name different music styles which can describe your music now?

Fred: Well, I’m from Alabama, and the first music I ever heard was blues, and then I’ve been into jazz, and then jazz became R’n’B, and then R’n’B became funk. And I was just introduced to klezmer music recently by these two gentlemen. I have heard klezmer music and to put it together with funk was thought to be some kind of adventure. To try it at least would have been a great thing to do. I have this song called ‘Breakin’ Bread’, it’s about people sitting down together, actually breaking bread and making a house party. What’s good with klezmer is that it’s about celebration, having a party. That’s exactly the direction we’re going to now: togetherness, breaking bread and a house party. We will do more of that with the new album and that’s the way it’s going now.

SoCalled: Our rapper, C-Rayz Walz, calls it ‘blendation’.

Ian: And from the klezmer perspective, as well as all other directions which your music includes, when did you first get the idea that these different styles can actually work together?

David: Before I left The Klezmatics in the mid 90s, I was always bringing in electric guitars, different kinds of influences, some jazz, some funk, some rock. I was also working with samplers, but in a kind of more ‘poetic’ way, especially on the albums I did at John Zorn’s Tzadik label. Then in 2001 I met SoCalled; we were at the festival in Canada called KlezCanada and SoCalled gave me the CD he made called Hip hop Seder. I thought ‘Oh God! Passover music with the hiphop beat is going to be like the worst nonsense I ever heard!’ But then i say ‘Well, he is a nice guy, I’ll listen to his CD.’ I listened to it and it’s just absolutely amazing. We did a couple of albums together and I felt that he is a visioner. Hip hop is coming to all kinds of world music, but SoCalled was the first one working with klezmer music, looking at the jewish heritage, and bringing that together. We were working together and co-produced the album called ‘Bubamaises: Lies My Grandma Told Me’. As we were touring with this album, we were just on the road thinking ‘What is the next step? What would be cool? SoCalled, what about Fred Wesley?’ And this was like a wow, a revelation, a lighting bolt, bell ringing…

Fred: Trombone solos…

David: Yes, so we called Fred, he was asking what it’s going to be and was a bit unsure, but once we got into the studio and started to work together, it worked really well. Funk is the root of hip-hop, and klezmer is an old music,

Fred: And jazz is the element which combines it all. You played jazz, you studied jazz, I played jazz. This guy (points at SoCalled) studies all music, he knows everything about music, so he had the vision to put it all together.

SoCalled: Each of us is really always been into trying to mix things together. You worked with African music, also country music and I was always trying to sample sounds and put them into different cultures together. It just wouldn’t work with everybody.

Fred: I would say that if you got a random klezmer musician, a random hip-hop producer, and a random funk musician and put them together it wouldn’t necessarily work. I think we consider each other to be very open, and that’s what matters.

Ian: On your opinion, what actually attracts the listener to your music: this kind of strange combination or specific elements of it? Why do you think people actually like your music?

Fred: Because people can dance to it, they can celebrate to it. When David plays strictly klezmer music, like for example the solo of ‘Der Heisser Bulgar’, I like it a lot, because I can dance to it. But we always ask: what about breakin’ bread? They understand what is this about, and when we do a houseparty, all of that in combination makes them enjoy the entire show.

SoCalled: I am a traditionalist. I love pure funk, I love pure klezmer, I love pure hip hop. I always wanted to see what happens if you mess around a little bit, and if on top of it you just pumping and rocking music. We thought a lot about the tunes, to find really catchy melodies and lyrics with it which mean something. It just everything you like about any kind of music.

Ian: Do you think that klezmer as a genre can still be popular as a pure klezmer without any mixings and influences from other styles?

David: Oh sure. Most of the people coming to our show are klezmer fans.

SoCalled: I’m not so sure, maybe Krakauer fans or SoCalled fans, meaning fans of klezmer as it is today, but pure klezmer fans are not there.

David: Well, maybe a very small percentage. Klezmer festival is like doing classical music. There’s a place for it as well as fans for it, but I think traditional fans are not so many.

Fred: I don’t think we have a lot of funk fans.

SoCalled: What’s up with that?

David: I think people just don’t know about it.

Fred: We’re trying to get a funk element and then I see there are a couple of people here who came to see me.

David: I remember there was a guy who came from 300 miles away to see Fred; he was like freeking out.

SoCalled: But if you know about funk, you wouldn’t miss any chance to see Fred Wesley playing!

Fred: And you wouldn’t miss this show too!

David: It’s sort of a funny problem with klezmer: you have the Shoa, you have Communism and especially Stalin, who brought a heavy hammer down on any Jewish culture in Eastern Europe, and then you have a desire to assimilate. My grandparents stopped speaking Yiddish when they came to the United States; they wanted to leave it behind, and believe me, we travelled in Russia, Poland and Eastern Europe; there were places where Socalled and I said: ‘Oh we know why our grandparents left, because it’s so hard’. We have a lot of empathy for the people which are still there, we can see how hard it often is. My grandparents came to the United States and definitely had a better life, My father says he wouldn’t been here, he would have been killed in Holocaust if he would have been born in Poland. So the culture has been basically destroyed. When you play klezmer music today, no matter how perfectly you play it - it’s a fish out of water. No one cares about hearing klezmer music on weddings anymore. Really virtually no one cares. If jewish people have klezmer music at the wedding, they have to think about, they have to think ‘Oh, maybe this could be cool!’ In Eastern Europe hiring musicians was a part of the culture, almost like going to a supermarket now. It has all been destroyed. So we are in a particularly weird position with Jewish music and Jewish culture.

SoCalled: You say it can never be popular. But it has never been popular.

Ian: What I mean is that there are bands which play only traditional klezmer tunes in traditional arrangements. But those are not the artists which became really famous.

SoCalled: You mean that even The Klezmatics made it rock’n’roll and not quite traditional. Brave Old World played sort of traditional.

David: But Brave Old World just can play tunes in traditional manner. Everybody can, and so do we, but it’s always a matter of choice.

SoCalled: In the commercial world that we live in playing instrumental dance tunes is not enough, you have to add words, you need to add sense, something different.

Fred: Like it is in jazz.

SoCalled: So the best thing so that to get known is always marketing.

Fred: In Alabama state, where I was born, it was not allowed to play jazz at the rehearsals. Jazz was not allowed just because we were trying to assimilate into the white world. Allthough some of the greatest musicians in the world came out of Alabama state, they couldn’t practice jazz at the rehearsals.

David: And there’s such thing even in Jewish music, where Klezmer was really put down.

SoCalled: Yes, klezmer was a dirty word. If you were playing klezmer, you were an uneducated musician. There was a kind of negative connotation. But it’s interesting about the dance music, because jazz in the 30s was actually the pop music, the dance music, so it you’re talking about African-American culture, they were totally entrenched into the common culture. You could go hear Count Basey and dance to it without going through all those steps. In the late 60s you could go see James Brown and just dance to it as well.

Ian: I really enjoyed your Hava Nagila interpretation, which actually reminded me of the early recording by Bob Dylan of Hava Nagila in blues. I just thought that this is a tune with an interesting fate, since a lot of musicians are producing their own interpretations.

SoCalled: Basically we did it because I’m sick and tired of people which say when they hear of klezmer music something like ‘Oh, that’s Hava Nagila.’

Fred: That was the only Jewish song that I knew.

SoCalled: So we say: if you want Hava Nagila, we give you Hava Nagila! So we made the funkiest Hava Nagila ever. There are all versions, including a reggae version of Hava Nagila from the 70s. There’s a film being made right now about Hava Nagila, and hopefully the closing credits will be our version of the song. There’s also a Habana Nagila written by a Cuban Jewish keyboard player.

David: I had written some riffs in a klezmer mode, and I gave it to Fred asking what did he think about harmonizing it, and SoCalled said just do what you do, turn off the breaks. Then three of us together shaped the arrangements and it appeared to be pretty rocking. One of our guitar players, Allem Watsky, Jewish but grew up playing funk, came up with a great opening tune. A nice Jewish boy from New Jersey…

Fred: But he knows how to play funk, believe me!

Ian: Well, that just proves once again that these all styles and communities perfectly coexist together and make a perfect, how you called it, blendation. You were mentioning the second album?

SoCalled: We met for four days in South Carolina, where Fred lives, and we had this beautiful space, like a jazz club there. We just hang out, each brought some ideas. There was a piano, a trombone, so we made a plan, a wishlist. It’s not just a bunch of old klezmer tunes, its different materials, also chassidic nigunim. We are really trying to bring all the cool stuff together, so we’ve done the same thing again. There’s some klezmer, some chassidic tunes, some original songs too.

Ian: So are your future works actually going to take a different direction?

SoCalled: I think it’s just going to get more comfortable in its scheme; it’s going to be less of explanation, less of trying to tell the story. Tweet-tweet is really about the tweeting, about klezmer, funk and hip-hop; it was a sort of introduction, like ‘Hey, it’s possible!’ The next album is just going to be more like: ‘The story has been told, you know what it is, here is some more.’

David: We are sort of creating our own genre. In fact, there was a crazy caricature of a black fat character with a big hat and a big Jewish star. That should probably become our logo.

Ian: How did your band name appear, what is the story behind?

David: I had a friend down in North Carolina; once we went to an incredible African American church. There were probably two or three non African Americans there. We came and were sitting there. The preacher saw us, and maybe I have a kind of Jewish looking face, ‘cause the preacher said: ‘Let’s welcome our guests, let’s always remember that Jews and African Americans stood side by side during the civil rights movement, and if it wasn’t for the seed of Abraham we wouldn’t have our saviour’. I began to think: ‘Wow, Abraham was sort of an important figure for Jews, for African Americans, for Christians, Muslims. Abraham is sort of all encompassing father figure. That’s how the name appeared.

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