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Interviews

Fred Wesley & Abraham, Inc.

Breakin’ Bread for the Challah Crowd

Abraham Inc Imagine yourself at a Parisian club, watching trombonist Fred Wesley perform his funk jam, “Breakin’ Bread,” in the company of fellow James Brown alumnus, saxist Pee-Wee Ellis. During a solo break, a black-suited, middle-aged gent lets fly with wild, trilling klezmer licks on clarinet, and then a bespectacled young guy wearing a brown sweater over a stiff-collared shirt wanders in from the wings and starts rapping a verse from a sheet of paper, exhorting you to wave your arms “like you do care.”

By the time the refrain of “Breakin’ bread with my mama” kicks in, people are getting down with their good and bad selves. This strange, groovy hodgepodge isn’t your mama’s funk – nor is it your mame’s klezmer. It’s the music of Abraham, Inc., a project dreamt up by New York City clarinettist/composer David Krakauer and Montreal-based rapper, keyboardist and beat-masher, Socalled, who bonded over a love for funk and hip-hop at the KlezKanada camp near Montreal in 2002. Two years ago, they called Wesley about forming a band.

The funk icon was at first bemused. As he admits from his South Carolina home [TK], “I didn’t know what klezmer was. So I listened, and I said, ‘Well, I guess funk can go with this.’”

The two musical genres, he explains, aren’t really that far removed from each other: “With klezmer, a minor scale will work over a major chord the same way it does in funk. Funk is slowed down, and klezmer is kind of speeded up. Somewhere in the middle is a collaboration.”

Wesley took up the role of co-composer and arranger, as he had done previously with Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, and Parliament. He and Krakauer would devise ideas on their horns, and Socalled, “just like George Clinton,” would “take different elements of what other people do and mix in his own. It’s very complicated, but it comes out to be good.”

The collaboration is cultural as well as musical, and Wesley is used to breaking down barriers: in his 2002 autobiography, Hit Me, Fred, he recalls his time in Alabama in the mid-‘60s, when he would overcome prejudice by playing with white musicians in segregated towns.

On stage with Abraham, Inc., he says, “You forget about the ethnic and cultural background – the music comes together, and the people come together too. I couldn’t just say straight out the top of my head who was Jewish and who was not, who was black and who was white … It all bled into one big band of musicians.”

Audiences at the band’s first gigs (including some in Europe with special guest Ellis) have blended in similar ways. At the Harlem Apollo, says Wesley, “I thought I was with James Brown for a minute. There was a lot of Jewish people, and everybody cheered and enjoyed it just like it was an all-black audience.”

The experience of playing with Abraham, Inc. has also helped Wesley to foster a renewed appreciation for the music he made as the leader of the Godfather of Soul’s band from 1970-75. The Abraham, Inc. song “Moskowitz and Loops of It,” for instance, incorporates the famous riff from the JB’s instrumental “Pass the Peas,” a tune which Wesley decried as “silly” in his book.

“My eyes are constantly being opened,” he says, “and I can see how that music, lightweight as it may be, [had] the impact it had. People come up and tell me that music changed their life. I wish James Brown was alive so I could tell him how I appreciate what we did back in the day so much more than I did at the time.”

The same goes for “Breakin’ Bread,” another food-fixated tune which was inspired by African-American family traditions. “I never considered that it would transcend all of these cultural barriers, but it really does! Whether you’re black or Jewish or white or French or Italian, you always sit down and eat. That’s the thing that brings you together.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Aug. 19, 2008

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