In Essential Albums, our favourite artists dig up a handful of records that they consider “Essential” by any definition they choose. This week, Montreal musician Socalled talks five records that represent his cultural, geographic and musical community.
The word "community" means many things for Socalled (a.k.a. Josh Dolgin). The Montreal-based performer/arranger/uniter centres the concept in both his music and his life, surrounding himself with artists of all ages and eras and bringing them together however and wherever he can. Look at the personnel credits for his new album Peoplewatching and you'll see a representation of both Montreal's multicultural community - from Quebecois disco king Pierre Perpall to Canadian jazz legend Oliver Jones to "the voice of Socalled" Katie Moore - and as diverse a representation of music history as you'll likely ever see. Jewish folk song, hip-hop, funk, jazz, Klezmer, Punjabi music, gypsy music, soul - you'll hear it all, often on a single song.
Dolgin attributes the title of the album to his friend and collaborator Fred Wesley (a trombone legend who's played and arranged for James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Ike and Tina Turner and more), who avoided the V.I.P. lounge at an airport to watch people go by. Dolgin wrote a song about it, and eventually used it as the title for his album. "It brings together my attitude and the attitude of the album," he says. "It's the sense of bringing people together and revelling, watching different styles and cultures, races and ages and languages and people and, yeah, celebrating that."
Throughout the record, and in his career as a whole, Dolgin plays a kind of musical fantasy G.M., bringing his heroes together and out of their comfort zones in situations that still suit their identities. "It's about bringing out the best of people, cajoling and manipulating performances out of them while keeping what it is that makes them great, always at the centre of the process."
So Dolgin chose the theme of "community" for his Essential Albums. He picked five records that exemplify that theme, from cultural community to geographic community to the community of music fans. You can tell he's most at ease talking about his friends and he speaks with the giddy glee of someone who's managed to make a living doing what he loves. He's also pretty damn funny. Read on for his picks.
Irving Fields Trio, Bagels and Bongos (1959)
Josh Dolgin: This record came out in 1959 and it was a landmark record in fusion. Irving Fields is all about music that fuels the community. Music that’s for the people, that has a function in community, that's for dancing.
Irving Fields grew up in the Yiddish world, and then in the '50s he saw that his world was into Latin music. People were dancing to the rumba and dancing cha-chas and stuff. So he took the music that he grew up with, which was Yiddish theatre music and Jewish folk songs, and then he added a funky beat to it and with his trio played these traditional melodies with a new swing, the swing of the scene that was going around him.
It was such a success that he ended up doing a whole series with bongos: there’s Pizza and Bongos, Champagne and Bongos, all of these different things with bongos. And he’s a friend of mine actually. He’s turning a 100 years old this year and he still plays three nights a week. So that's pretty awesome.
Chart Attack: It seems like philosophically you’ve got a lot in common with that sense of updating cultural music?
That’s it. Fusion, fearless fusion. If it works and you can mush it together and it makes sense then go for it. Don’t be afraid of genre or trying to fuck with genre. I do that now, but in 1959 the idea of doing that is pretty insanely hip.
Nowadays it’s a little more commonplace.
Yeah, everyone is using it up now. Like in a hip-hop song you’ll hear a Bollywood sample or even stuff from the Balkans, gypsy music, and it’s the flavours that work.
Hip-hop is sort of the genre that eats all other genres. You can take anything and put it into a hip-hop song and it will be embraced.
That’s it, and it was embraced. Aside from being an official culture with its elements and all of that, to me hip-hop just sort of means music made in the computer age. It's like how to incorporate drum machines and sampling and stuff into music now. And it was just then and there that it happened and so it came up sounding a certain way. Then it was super useful to everybody around in the world, as means of expressing themselves and talking about where they’re from.
David Wiffen, Coast to Coast Fever (1973)
So I know what you're going to ask: what does this record have to do with community?
Okay, so, it’s a personal story. When I was about 15 I met this music producer in Ottawa. I was playing in a Salsa band and we did a session in a studio and this producer heard me and said, "yo, you’re pretty good kid, I’m going to give you a call one day.”
Well, about three years later he gave me a call, and he said "yo, I have this session, I’m working on a record that's sort of this comeback record for this guy David Wiffen who's making a new record basically of his old songs, and we need keys on it." So I recorded the keys on it and it took very long, like a year, and I played the piano, organ, electric piano, accordion and all this stuff in sessions over the year. And it was my entrance into studio life.
And then I met this producer guy called Phil Bova, whose son ended up being a drummer who was also named Phil Bova... Jr. I started working with him and I never stopped working with him. Every record I’ve ever made I made with Phil Jr. and Phil Sr. It was the studio community that I grew into and that I became a part of and just by playing with David Wiffen I met all of these musicians and studio people and it opened me into that world.
You’ve been mentored by a lot of older musicians. Are you now paying that forward to younger musicians?
I think in hip-hop people are strategic and they're stuck. It’s so wild and they say whatever they want and their beats are so crazy, but, well, why does everything sound the same then? It's so conservative.
That’s interesting. Sometimes you talk to an artist, especially rappers, and they're reluctant to do too many collaborations when they're starting out because they want to make a name for themselves before they start working with others.
Yeah, and it kind of sucks. And I think in hip-hop in general people are strategic and they're stuck. It’s so wild and they say whatever they want and their beats are so crazy, but, well, why does everything sound the same then? It's in a style, in a groove, a lot of the hip-hop beats these days sound the same. Which is cool, sure. The sound that everybody sounds like is a great sound. But it's so conservative. Or, like jazz. Jazz is improvised music. But then why does it sound like jazz? If it’s totally improvised, why does it come out sounding like, when you put it on, you know that it sounds like jazz? Don’t you think if it was truly freely improvised it would just come out sounding like anything?
So people just get stuck in their styles and it becomes super conservative. And it’s okay, but that’s why I’ll never make it. I’m just not stuck in a sound that people can figure out or wrap their heads around.
Chamkila, Legends, Volume 1 (2012)
So Chamkila was this Punjabi singer from India. He made a million songs, and was one of the first to sing about not-religious issues and politics. He's sort of like a Fela Kuti, Bob Marley-like visionary - a populate, awesome, from-the-people kind of singer. Well, he pissed some people off with his words, apparently, and he ended up getting assassinated when he was about 28 years old, which is insane. He was one of those guys that died super young, too young, but had already made an incredible impact and recorded hundreds and hundreds of songs.
Well, as it happens, his daughter lives in Montreal and she works at an Indian restaurant. And I met her and heard her story and, guess what, she’s a singer too! And because her father is Chamkila she has like 500,000 fans on Facebook because she’s like the princess of Punjabi music. She’s never put out a record - I think she put out one or two songs - but people are just ready to embrace her. She’s like royalty.
So she’s part of my community in Montreal. Like, she's just at the restaurant down the street. Yeah, it just kind of goes to show you the amazing people in your own community, you know, and you can draw from your own community. Like, I didn’t have to look too far to find amazing performers. And Montreal is unique in that there are just so many amazing musicians, people from around the world, that have come to live in Montreal to find a better life. So I know this amazing Bulgarian flute player, he’s one of the best folk musicians I’ve ever heard, and he has a better life here, but to make a living he basically delivers chicken. He has a car that has a big chicken on the top and he delivers chicken. Okay, so sometimes the new life is still pretty damn hard in Canada, but I guess their kids have it easier and they work their asses off so their kids can have it easier.
But Montreal just has this amazing community of new Canadians that are living here. On my record is this guy Sergiu Popa who is from Moldova and he is Roma, Roma gypsy, and he is an absolute utter virtuoso on the accordion. Or there's this guy Ismail Fencioglu. He’s from Turkey and he’s one of world's greatest Oud players. So, that's my community.
Are you talking about a geographic community in Montreal or is more of a musical or artistic community?
I think it’s a sense of both. Even just the physical community, I go to the coffee shops in my neighbourhood. There are two rival coffee shops and one of them is this old beautiful old school Italian place called Olimpico and right up the street there’s this way more humble hole in the wall called the Social Club. I go to both for different reasons, but mostly the Social Club. Any given day of the week you’ll run into Ismael, you’ll run into Patrick Watson, you’ll run into Sarah Neufeld, you'll run into Owen Pallett, and you'll run into the best jazz musicians in Montreal. It’s just people hanging out at the cafe, and a lot of them are musicians because we’re all unemployed pieces of shit.
Fred Wesley & the New J.B.'s, Breakin' Bread (1974)
Okay, so we've got Indian music, Jewishy music, David Wiffin-y music. How about Breakin' Bread by Fred Wesley? I pick Breakin' Bread as just one of the greatest funk records of all time, absolutely. That’s a record that was produced by James Brown. And I’m so lucky to have Fred in my little personal community. I’m so blessed to get to work with him. Every time it happens it’s awesome.
Fred played on my album. He sings the "Peoplewatching" thing. But "Breakin' Bread" is the ultimate community song. It’s about just hanging out and eating together. Everyone can agree on chicken and breaking bread together. And so when I wrote "Peoplewatching" I wrote it for Fred because he has these songs that talk about hanging out and getting along and just eating. "Peoplewatching" and "Breakin' Bread" and "House Party," which is another one of his great solo songs.
We have this band called Abraham Inc., and we made a record called Tweet, Tweet and it’s pretty hilarious. That’s really all about African American music meeting Jewish music. It's Fred Wesley and David Krakauer, this amazing Klezmer clarinettist. So we had a 10-piece band, basically half-black and half-Jewish, and we looked at both cultures and communities and tried to make a thing out of all of that. And we did, and we toured together on a bus, drove around in Europe. It was really a special time. And it was fascinating for both communities. Like, we played at the Apollo in Harlem and then we played in a synagogue, so we really brought it to both communities. Basically just to show like, hey, what the fuck, let’s get it on, let’s break bread together.
Moe Koffman, Moe's Curried Soul (1969)
We have one left and somehow let me talk abut CBC, the theme song from As It Happens. How can I tie that in?
You can just talk about it...
Or you can pick a Moe Koffman record.
And I just figured out the community angle on this one: When I grew up I listened every single day to the CBC. It was on every single night, like at dinner time you’d listen to the news and on would come As it Happens. And, as it happens, last year they asked a bunch of producers to submit a remix of the theme song. So they asked me and I sent in my demo and they liked it and they picked it and so I made the remix and now it's the theme song for As It Happens.
It's on basically five times a day throughout Canada. And for me to be that sound every night across Canada is the greatest sort of honour. I’m really part of the Canadian landscape, the sound of Canada. It's like, there's not a more iconic Canadian sound than the Moe Koffman theme song for As It Happens. It’s just in my ear, it’s what I grew up with as a kid, every single damn day of my life. So, that’s it, now I'm part of the cultural history of Canada.
We’ll see how long I last before my remix gets really dated and they pick another one or they go back to the original, which is sort of a timeless classic that I think it's ridiculous to have messed with in the first place. But they asked me to and I did the best I could. So that song I put on my record. It's the last song on the new CD, the new remix that you can now bump in your Jeep. Your proverbial Jeep.
It sort of brings it full circle.
At least full circle. Maybe even like a helix.