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Socalled is trying to make the best of his downtime

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Josh Dolgin

Like many Canadian musicians and artists, Josh Dolgin is excited to perform in front of his fans. But when the COVID-19 crisis struck, his world was upended when venues cancelled his gigs, resulting in a financial hit and more downtime than he expected.

Thing is, Montreal-based Dolgin – a rapper, singer, producer and pianist who you might know as Socalled – isn’t wallowing in self-pity over the cancelled tour. He’s taking the time to level up his skills and focus on what he does best: making music, particularly music infused with Yiddishkeit.

His latest show to be cancelled was “Socalled Sings Di Frosh” scheduled for April 23 at Toronto’s George Weston Recital Hall.

The musician best known for blending hip-hop with klezmer was poised to return to Toronto with his “Di Frosh” show, which he brought to the city for the 2018 Ashkenaz Festival.

“Di Frosh” is one of Dolgin’s many projects underway, but it holds a special place in his repertoire because it allowed him to showcase Yiddish songs rarely seeing the light of the stage. “I chose Yiddish songs with nice four-part harmonies and worked with a string quartet on arrangement that fit the songs,” Dolgin says in an interview while under self-quarantine in his Montreal home after playing at a klezmer festival in Germany.

“Di Frosh came out of my love for Yiddish,” he adds. “It’s an archeological exercise to dig through these old songs and slow them down and hear every single detail.”

If you’ve seen Socalled live, it’s obvious he’s enthusiastic about singing Yiddish and sharing his passion for the language with his audience, but isn’t it challenging to actually play the music and sing the words when you weren’t raised in a Yiddish-speaking home?

“When I got into klezmer, I learned how to ornament the music with, say, trills and ghost notes and dreidelach, which is turning the note around, in a way,” Dolgin says. “When I analyze the Yiddish words and melodies, I have to ensure the words are clear, that I enunciate every syllable.”

Canadian venues may once again hear Di Frosh once this worldwide quarantine subsides (or audiences can enjoy his music on Spotify and iTunes) but until these policies are lifted Dolgin is shifting his energy to rehearsing his pianist skills and making beats, stemming from his love of hip-hop.

“These beats I create become the stepping-off point for creating songs. I’ll make the beats and my favourite ones get worked into proper productions for a new Socalled album, which I’m overdue putting out,” he says.

He goes on to explain that as a longtime fan of vinyl, he’s collected more than 8,000 records, which includes a “ton of Yiddish vinyl, Israeli records, cantorial music, klezmer and Hasidic stuff. I don’t exclusively sample from these but they do serve as the most personal source of things to nab.”

These days, many self-isolating musicians are turning to video apps like Zoom or Instagram Live to bring music to their fans, but Dolgin won’t be taking part in these online shows anytime soon.

“Power to these people and their spirit, but I can’t really get in that headspace for some reason. I’m old fashioned. Something feels phony about it all. And it all feels so self-indulgent at a time like this, even though I understand audiences are craving for ‘content’, and have lost so much by not being able to go out,” Dolgin says.

“What can I say, I like sound created in spaces, in collaboration with other creators. For now, I’m practising, studying, arranging, holding out for a world where groups of actual humans can gather to share in musical or theatrical experiences in real places in real time.”

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