Socalled Meets String Quartet: Whatever the Medium, Yiddish Culture is Here to Stay

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A fixture on the Montreal music scene with an impressive following abroad, Josh Dolgin, a.k.a. Socalled, has been dubbed “the mad wizard of Yiddish hip-hop.” Over the last two decades, his whimsical blend of seriously irreverent artistry has popped up in concert halls, clubs and cinemas, as he dabbles in cartooning and magic and takes part in far-flung collaborations like Tales from Odessa, his Yiddish gangster puppet musical for the Segal Centre, and the Juno-nominated album AKOKA, with classical cellist Matt Haimovitz and klezmer clarinettist David Krakauer.

This fall sees the release of both his original queerotic film The Housesitter along with a new album of largely traditional Yiddish theatre songs with the Hamburg-based Kaiser Quartett. Predictable he is not.

The impetus for Die Frosh, released on Sept. 21 (Socalled/Membran), goes back 20 years to when Dolgin, a hip-hop producer, first began searching for old Yiddish records in flea markets and thrift stores, looking to sample Old World tracks to mix with contemporary sounds.

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“Hip-hop is based on found sounds that come from, usually, Afro-American culture,” Dolgin explained. “So for me to participate in hip-hop and rap, it was a revelation to find my own culture from which to draw inspiration.

“I started to find little riffs and breaks in old Yiddish records. Here was this music that was incredible and funky and full of catchiness, that no one else was really referencing. It felt really fresh and honest.”

Dolgin’s ground-breaking sounds – heard on albums like The So Called Seder: A Hip Hop Haggadah (2005) and Ghettoblaster (2006) – contributed to what is known as the Yiddish Revival. A culture of literature, music, art, dance, and language once truly on the brink of extinction has been fostered and resurrected through concerts, lectures, classes, and recordings, as well as festivals like the annual KlezKanada in the Laurentians.

“The people in the first wave of the Yiddish Revival really had to dig,” Dolgin says. “…They were like archaeologists finding lost and forgotten treasures after a real rupture in the culture.

“The new generation has grown up with it as part of its consciousness. Young people have gone to these festivals since they were babies, hearing the rhythms and melodies. They are not rediscovering anything. It is part of their living identity and their culture.”

Dolgin, who is 41, says that he grew up after a lot of the “heavy lifting” of the Yiddish Revival had been done: “So I could come along as a 20-year-old in the digital age and find a way to engage with it, with new technologies.”

But, 20 years on, despite a worldwide outpouring of Yiddish, Dolgin wasn’t hearing the songs with the kind of traditional arrangements and harmonies that had first inspired him. So, instead of looking for riffs to chop up, he became dedicated to learning the style of that tradition, first playing the melodies on accordion or piano, and then singing the songs. As Dolgin began to incorporate some of this music into his live performances, he was met with enthusiastic audiences in city after city.

The songs on Die Frosh are arranged for string-quartet accompaniment, many by Dolgin himself. “This is my attempt to present some of the most incredible songs of this most incredible repertoire in a really classy and respectful way,” he says.

The album includes songs from the Yiddish theatre repertoire, art song, Hassidic melodies, Klezmer, folksong, and songs from the Holocaust and from Israel. Highlights include the mournfully nostalgic “Kinder Yorn” (My Childhood), which was written in the 1930s or 40s by Mordechai Gebirtig, the great poet from Kraków, but based on a choral arrangement from the 1950s by Yiddish theatre composer Abraham Milstein. “Afn Boydm” (Above the Attic) is a folk song that Dolgin transcribed from a 1912 edition of piano sheet music. The title track, “Die Frosh” (The Frog) is a charming children’s song, complete with gentle Yiddish-ized ribbits.

The poignant “Tsum Shtam” (To the Source) is one of two original compositions on the album, written for Dolgin by legendary Yiddish singer and Holocaust survivor Arkady Gendler (1921-2017). “He was a link to the old world, a beautiful spirit, with the most beautiful voice, and the most amazing guy,” Dolgin says. “He was like my grandfather.”

Eleven years ago Gendler joined Dolgin’s family on a Yiddish culture cruise on the Dnieper river in Ukraine. Gendler wrote the song while on the boat, a touching story of people coming home to their roots.

The excellent Kaiser Quartett had already collaborated with Dolgin in Hamburg on his indie puppet musical The Season, parts 1 and 2. (The quartet can also be heard to beautiful effect on 2015’s Chambers from Chilly Gonzales – another Montrealer and a close friend of Dolgin’s.)

“They were interested in expanding their repertoire and having some fun. For me it is such an honour to play with them and to get their genius working for a good cause,” he laughs.

Touring the album around the world, Dolgin is performing with a new string quartet in each city, including Venice, London, Boston, New York, and Toronto (with the Montreal-based Warhol Dervish) and for later dates in Paris and Moscow. “It’s been super cool and edifying and gratifying,” he says. “This is music that is bursting with passion. These incredible virtuoso musicians; they’re basically freaking out wherever I go.”

Socalled’s Die Frosh seems proof that the living, breathing Yiddish culture is here to stay. “The over-sentimentalizing of this music is over,” he says, “This is world-class music. It’s a treasure that needs to be shared.”

For more information on Socalled’s concerts, visit www.socalledmusic.com.

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