Eric Volmers, Calgary Herald: Mazel Tov!

Posted by Johanna on 26 July 2011

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Socalled plays the Calgary Folk Music Festival's main stage tonight at 6: 30 p.m.

Geoff Berner plays Stage 4 Sunday at 3: 15 p.m.

Mazel Tov!, featuring Berner, Socalled and Yemen blues, will be held at Stage 5 Saturday at 12: 55 p.m.

Geoff Berner calls it "campaigning" for a gig.

The Vancouver singersongwriter was holed up in the Montreal studio of his friend and fellow klezmer enthusiast Josh Dolgin (a.k.a. hip-hop artist Socalled), last year when he decided to FedEx the good folks at the Calgary Folk Music Festival a bag of Montreal's famous bagels. Montreal-style bagels, beloved for their sweet flavour and dense texture, have been hallmarks of the city since Jewish immigrants from Eastern European countries first brought them to town at the turn of the 20th century.

So Berner insists it was a culturally appropriate gesture, a symbolic promise of the fresh Jewish flavours that could result if programmers booked both the self-proclaimed "Whisky Rabbi" and rapping "Jewish Cowboy" for a frenzy of klezmer fun at the fest.

"It was saying, 'I'm here with Socalled making my record,' " says Berner, back at his Vancouver home.

" 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could do some stuff at the Calgary folk festival since he knows my stuff intimately and vice versa.' It was a calling card from Montreal."

That record was Victory Party, Berner's latest sonic adventure that mixes punk, folk and electronica with strains of klezmer and a left-leaning political bent.

Socalled, who will join Berner and Israeli "desert soul" act Yemen Blues for a workshop on Saturday afternoon entitled Mazel Tov!, has his own album to promote. Sleepover shoehorns even more seemingly far-flung styles into the mix, while still managing to pay homage to the music of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.

But Berner and Dolgin's respective journeys back to their roots were as different as their music. So are their levels of comfort with the klezmer tag.

Berner has taken great pains to cultivate his image as the "Whisky Rabbi" over four albums, a process that has taken him deep into the wilds of Romania to learn his klezmer chops from the old masters.

has shown some weariness in recent interviews about being painted into the "hip-hop klezmer" corner.

On top of that, the definition of klezmer itself is a bit fuzzy.

According to Berner, it initially referred to a musician who was "largely untrained and possibly not entirely trustworthy." Now it's become a catch-all term that refers to all music from Eastern European's Ashkenazi Jews.

"That's why if you get two Jewish musicians and ask them to define klezmer music, you're bound to have an entertaining argument, pretty much immediately," says Berner. "When you talk to Josh Dolgin about what I've said, just wait and see what he says."

Dolgin, in fact, doesn't really contradict Berner's assessment. But he admits he is less interested than Berner in making the klezmer tag stick to his music.

Sleepover is a multicultural stew that features funk, soul, traditional folk, calypso and hip-hop and is crammed full of notable guests such as James Brown's legendary trombonist Fred Wesley and 96-year-old pianist Irving Fields.

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