Saturday, April 26, 2008

Putting the "Lez" in Klezmer

It was a tale of two genres: one, the saucy backbeat that fueled generations of pizzazz and overblown wardrobes, a style so alien to my life experience that I’d resigned to fandom from afar. The other, the downtrodden soundtrack to a tyrannized people, long ago banished to obscurity and disregard.

In the most unlikely of marriages, funk and klezmer found a way to coexist. Perhaps it was inevitable that David Krakauer, the virtuosic clarinetist and klezmer artist, would team with Fred Wesley, a funk patriarch who played trombone and arranged for James Brown in the 1960s and ’70s. After all, Wesley rose to stardom playing on such hits as “Super Bad,” and Krakauer continues to garner equal helpings of adulation and derision for his outrĂ© compositions.

In resuscitating classic shtetl progressions with new-age rhythms and exotic treatments, Krakauer proved himself an oxymoron: a dangerous klezmer artist.

In 2006, Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness! released “Bubbemeises: Lies My Gramma Told Me,” which included “Moskowitz,” an incendiary romp one part shtetl, one part speakeasy, and two parts Moulin Rouge. The title track, meanwhile, includes a rap section that lists about a dozen bubbemeises (grandma’s tales):

“Stay away from all the witches who live at forks in the road…. Don’t cross your eyes or they’ll stay that way…. These are lies my Gramma told me, superstitious devices, urban mythological rules and bubbemeises."

[Click here for both "Moskowitz" and "Bubbemeises."]

Together with Wesley — who moved on to Parliament-Funkadelic and then a solo career after leaving Brown — and Canadian multi-instrumentalist Josh Dolgin (aka DJ Socalled), Krakauer recently formed Abraham Inc. The 10-piece group ( is a polyglot mash-up of several styles, but most notably klezmer, funk, and hip-hop. With its debut record set for a fall release, Abraham Inc. will perform the album material for the first time at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater on May 3.

“David came to me with the idea for Abraham Inc., and I didn’t really see how it could work,” said Wesley, who lives in South Carolina. “But the more I got into it, the more I realized that all music was the same; it’s just where you put the emphasis. Funk and klezmer are very much alike if you slow it down or speed it up, and it’s worked really well for us.”

Listeners can sample the unlikely cohesion on the video section of Abraham Inc.’s web video section. The first clip, a live performance of “TweetTweet,” is a vibratory klezmer standard layered on top of a merciless funk foundation. Instead of compromising either style, Abraham Inc. simply welds the two together.

As with all interdenominational projects, there is the obligatory temptation to honor the human interest aspect. Indeed, Wesley said, “On a philosophical level, I hope it would bring some people together who never thought they’d be together.”

For music geeks like me, though, Abraham Inc. is less cross-culture than outright miracle. “A Funky Miracle,” as The Meters might title it, that legitimizes a part of my heritage that I’d written off to antiquated Eastern European plaintiveness.

Finally, we have the funk.

Stay Super Bad, Wesley
MC Madness

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