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Klezmer Funk Hip-Hop? Abraham Inc.

Michael May

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Fred Wesley, left, and David Krakauer
(Courtesy David Krakauer)
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Abraham Inc. performs "Moskowitz and Loops of It"
(Bernstein Artists)

The klezmer-funk-hip-hop group Abraham Inc. will have their debut performance at the Apollo tonight. Reporter Michael May has the story behind this unlikely fusion of music genres:

Abraham Inc. performs "Tweet Tweet"
(Bernstein Artists)

David Krakauer is a third-generation American Jew. His great-grandparents and grandparents spoke Yiddish as their first language, and no wedding in their hometown in Russia would have been complete without a band playing that joyous Jewish secular music, klezmer. Krakauer grew up obsessed with music. "It's a part of who we are," he says. "Fundamentally, quintessentially -- for me, it's my life blood."

But here's the thing: Krakauer's lifeblood is black American music. Jazz. That's what he fell in love with at age 11, and that's what he played on the clarinet in high school and college. He'd hardly heard klezmer until his 20s.

"I grew up completely assimilated, hardly going to synagogue," he says. "My grand parents and great-grandparents stopped speaking Yiddish when they got to the United States. I think they were so traumatized by their experience in Russia and Poland and Belarussia that they just wanted to move on."

The holocaust destroyed klezmer music in Eastern Europe, and American Jews virtually abandoned it for jazz and pop. It wasn't until the 1970s that a few curious souls started digging out the old 78's and transcribing the melodies note for note. Krakauer got turned on to klezmer in the '80s. He took the music and infused it with his own avant-garde jazz sensibility.

Now a new generation of Jews is reworking those old records. Josh Dolgin -- aka Socalled -- a Jewish hip-hop producer who came to klezmer via the Wu Tang Clan. "I was this rural white kid in Canada," says Dolgin. "It seemed disingenuous and strange to be making updated black music -- so I started to look for old records that reflected me more. So I started actively looking for Jewish records, because they were full of amazing samples. They were full of dope little breaks all the time."

Socalled and David Krakauer met at a klezmer camp. They talked about the artists they loved -- people like the "Klezmer King" Naftuli Brandwine and soul god James Brown -- and decided to start working together. Last year, when they were contemplating sidemen for their new band, they got up the nerve to call up their dream pick: Fred Wesley, the trombonist and arranger for James Brown and Parliament.

"He just presented the project to me," Wesley says. "And I was skeptical -- I hadn't heard much klezmer music before. But David had heard a lot of funk! And he was pretty sure that it would work, so he just convinced me."

And the music does work. See, klezmer's not polka, it's syncopated and funky. And Wesley immediately knew what to do: "When you play funk, you get an attitude," he says. "It's like your knocking down doors, you're tearing the roof off the sucker. But this is happy music. Like, you heard 'Tweet Tweet'? It's a nice song, everyone's happy. But the rhythm underneath... duh duh duh. That's a knock the door down, tear the roof off kind of an attitude."

And Krakauer made sure the ancient melodies still come through. "It didn't feel like putting a square peg into a round hole, it just was happening," he says.

You could make this into a metaphor about healing the sometimes fraught relationship between blacks and Jews. For Wesley's part, he says he's just learned to dig Jewish culture.

"[The two cultures] are more similar than they are different," he says. "I mean, we both like to eat, dance and sing. That's very important. And shaking booty is important to both cultures, and we will come together on that if nothing else."

Comments

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  • By Bob Stokes

    05/11/2008

    When are guys doing a CD? I am waiting....

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