While some people might look askance at a klezmer-funk-hip-hop collaboration, world-renowned klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer sees the combination as completely logical. "Funk is the root of hip-hop," he explains, "so you're taking two traditional musics with hip-hop as the common denominator and bringing them together." And they come together in Abraham Inc., a ten-piece group featuring Krakauer; trombonist Fred Wesley, who's known for his work with James Brown; and Socalled, a pioneer in mixing hip-hop and klezmer. We caught up with Krakauer to talk about how the group formed, the story behind the name Abraham Inc. and what to expect at the group's show at the Newman Center on Saturday, November 12.
Westword: How did Abraham Inc. form initially?
David Krakauer: Socalled and I had been working together since 2001. Then around 2005, we had made this record called Bubbemeises, this record on Label Bleu, a French label. We had co-produced that. We were thinking, "What's the next step?" Then Socalled said, "What about Fred Wesley?" and then this light bulb went off in both of our heads and we were like, "Wow, that's an amazing idea." So my manager tracked him down and we had lunch with him and we chatted and we were like, "Okay, cool." Fred was like, "I think played 'Hava Nagila' at a Jewish wedding once." That I would have loved to have heard, by the way. That would have been awesome.
But anyway, people go "klezmer, funk, hip-hop, that sounds so weird," but to me if you get... I met Socalled in 2001 and he was just doing these experimental recordings in his basement basically. I guess he was trying to put himself out there at the time, but I basically took in into Klezmer Madness, put his name out front as a featured artist because I felt like, wow this guy is really a pioneer in bringing kind of a hip hop aesthetic or hip hop direction to klezmer. This is a trend in all world music, in world beat these days, that you pretty much get any cultural, ethnic, folk, world music whatever, and there's always going to be someone putting beats to it. So Socalled was really the first one to do that for Jewish music, for klezmer music, and I recognized that right away, and I was like, "Wow, this is cool," so I brought him into the fold. So we were doing these kinds of things where we were really making these interesting mixes of klezmer and hip-hop. For example, his samples would come from old Jewish records, old cantorial, old klzemer, old Yiddish theater records... the samples have these integrated kind of feel with the jewish music. so we were doing that for awhile.
Then, if you look, funk is the root of hip-hop and so you're taking two traditional musics in a way and with hip-hop as the common denominator and bringing them together. To me, it's so logical. People are always going, "Wow, that's so random, man - klezmer, funk, hip-hop." It's totally logical and it's totally logical in terms of the direction music is going in in general now. And just also totally logical politically like in the world today where you can bring cultures together. Not just a collage because that's not really that interesting, but a real dialogue between cultures. That's been amazing.
The thing was, we got in a room together with Socalled, Fred and I and there was this moment, this sort of awkward moment, like, "Okay, what do we do?" And Fred just said, "Give me a beat." And Socalled hit a beat that he did on this tune "Baleboste," which is on our CD. The Baleboste is the woman who runs the house, the matriarch in a Jewish home. She's the one who calls the shots and knows what's going on. So anyway, he hit that beat and Fred began to blow over the top of that and I started improvising with Fred, you know, weaving around, and we knew then we had chemistry. It was awesome. And the second thing was that we had this tune called "Moscowitz," and that's the "Moscowitz" remix on the album. That was a song that Socalled and I had already recorded in 2004 with this Label Bleu record, the one I was telling you about, Bubbemeises. We said to Fred, "Here's this tune. It's basically a set of set of call and response riffs." The way it worked was that Socalled made a beat and made these call and response riffs based on a traditional klezmer song. I shredded the klezmer song and took little bits of it and made these little riffs. There were other riffs that were my stream of consciousness going with those bits of the klezmer song. Then we played it for Fred, one riff at a time and he came up with counter lines. It was like in contrary motion like my riff goes down and his riff goes up. It totally worked.
We had this nice session. We tried two or three tunes. I also had written these kind of lines on "Hava Nagila." And then he took all of that to his hotel room that night. The next day we had a full band assemble with all the horns - tenor player, trumpet, two guitars, drums, bass, and we took that whole situation and Fred had harmonized all those riffs. Then we have those great funk horn section things. So that's basically how it happened.
I was reading how Fred was a little nervous playing klezmer and using the Eastern European modes, and it sounds like you guys just told him to forget about the modes and just....
Yeah, just take those melodies and harmonize them exactly as you would. He was thinking that somehow it would clash. But Socalled and I had enough confidence over the years that we knew, "No, it's cool." All of these things you could put basically like a funky line or a bluesy line on top of those modal things and it works perfectly. Fred was so relieved, he was like, "Oh, just do what I do?" Yes, Fred Wesley do what you do unbelievably. That's what been so cool and successful about this project. It's like bringing people together and we do what we do, and that works out rather nicely. What's the story behind the name of group?
I was sort of thinking about Abraham as the father of different religions - of Jewish and Muslim, and then for African American Christians, Abraham and the old testament is very important with all the different stories and spirituals, you know "Rocky My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham" and that kind of thing. Then I was actually hanging out at this amazing African American church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the preacher there was visiting with some friends and we were the only African Americans there and he took a look a my - I would say I have a pretty Jewish looking face - and he said, "We're happy to have our guests here." He said this to the congregation, "Don't forget to that African Americans and Jews always stood side by side in the civil rights movement and if it wasn't the for the seed of Abraham we wouldn't have our savior. It was like that whole thing kind of stuck in my head. And then Jews being called the people of Abraham but Abraham also important for Christians and thinking particularly about the black church and all the incredible music there and the joy and the ecstasy, and that seemed to resonate also with the trance and the ecstatic sides of Jewish music. And so I thought, "Abraham and Friends, Abraham and Company" and finally said, "Abraham Incorporated," you know, kind of like a little more badass. So it seemed to work. It's a Jewish African-American house party.
What can people expect at your shows?
A lot of stuff on the record. Then there are some pieces that come from Fred's repertoire that are more or less straight funk but then with sort of our approach. Then there are a few pieces that are more or less straight klezmer but also with their own twists, like the klezmer piece will suddenly break into kind of a funk part. Then the funky klezmer piece will suddenly break into klezmer dance. So we move between the styles, but I would say that it's a really fun show and there are lots of subtle details and little touches and all kinds that we've done. We've done a tremendous amount of work on the project but what comes forth is just a band that loves to play together and loves to have people move and groove to it. So basically at the end of the day, as Fred would say, "It's going to be a funky good time."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.