December 11, 2018

Berlin-Based Klezmer Musician Heads to Pico Union Project

Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird Photo from Facebook

“Nightmare visions you can dance to.” 

That’s what Ron Kadish, Daniel Kahn’s publicist, says about “The Butcher’s Share,” a new album by the klezmer group Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird. The group currently is touring the U.S. and will play at Pico Union Project (PUP) on Nov. 18. 

Some of the lyrics in “The Butcher’s Share” — a play on sher, a Yiddish square dance — are indeed dark. One ballad is called “No One Survives”: “And in the end, no one prevails / Everyone falls, everyone fails.” Another is a tango-like horah that refers to Shoah survivors as “broken and stained” remnants. The album’s lyrics may be a bitter pill to swallow at times, but the music — with its irresistible musicianship, soulful vocals and catchy rhythms— is totally absorbing. 

Kahn, 40, sings in Yiddish and English, and the album’s songs run the gamut from haunting strains steeped in pain and loss to idealistic ballads drawn from reimagined Genesis stories. More than a few (including the title song, “The Butcher’s Share”) are not only danceable klezmer melodies, they’re also witty jabs at the human condition, showstoppers that evoke tears and laughter, that would fit neatly in a subversive musical from 1920s Berlin.  

In fact, Berlin is where Daniel Kahn has lived for the past 13 years, and his work has been shaped by Yiddish-speaking social activists of the early 1900s, radicals who called themselves Bund, anarchists or Marxists. 

In a phone conversation from his home in Berlin, Kahn told the Journal that Yiddish was not part of his early home life. Instead, he was brought up in a “suburban, Reform, liberal, assimilated, Americanized Jewish family” in the Detroit area.

“It was really much later that I discovered Yiddish on my own,” Kahn said. “I got into [it] by hearing singers like Michael Alpert and Adrienne Cooper, really being inspired by their work. You can say that I emigrated to Yiddishkayt.”

Some of the songs in “The Butcher’s Share” resonate with Jewish history. “Children in the Woods,” with text and music by Kahn, is a haunting poem/song about burying children’s bodies among the “broken branches of a tree.” Like many of Kahn’s songs, it touches both a specific and universal nerve. It’s about those murdered in the Shoah, of course, but it could also be about any disaster in which innocent lives are lost. 

The 1890s political ballad, “Arbeter Froyen” (Working Women), sung movingly in Yiddish and English by Sarah Gordon, Sasha Lurje and Lorin Sklamberg, is eerily current. It extols women’s hard work “in factories and homes,” exhorting listeners to fight for women’s “freedom and justice and equality.” 

As counterpoint to the serious themes, there’s the music itself, the bust-out, upbeat energy of klezmer, and of all the other buoyant, irresistible modern musical styles threaded in the songs.

“Klezmer has always been in conversation with other music,” Kahn said. “European music, American music, early jazz. Since the 1980s, it’s been in constant conversation with more radical contemporary music forms like hip-hop, punk rock and modern jazz.” 

The current U.S. tour features songs from “The Butcher’s Share,” but the sizable group, which includes brass, reeds, percussion, strings and several singers, will play other songs, and there will be “projected visuals and artwork by Eric Drooker, a wonderful graphic artist,” Kahn said. “[Drooker has] done New Yorker covers and he did the album cover and all the artwork in the booklet [of our songs], so we use his images in the show.”

Yeva Lapsker runs those visual presentations. “Yeva’s my wife,” Kahn said. “We met while we were both in the YIVO [Yiddish Scientific Institute] program in New York. YIVO has a wonderful Yiddish language and culture program.” It’s where he said, “I fell in love with Yiddish songs and with the stories. I fell in love with their complex humor, their revolutionary spirit, their deep melancholy and exuberance. It just kind of infected me, captured me.” 

In 2005 Kahn moved to Berlin, where he and Lapsker have become part of a “tight-knit community of artists who often work with each other” in producing theater and music that incorporate Yiddish culture as subject matter and uses Yiddish as one of its languages. 

Yiddish, he said, “has a lot of appeal, and it’s growing. Every day I’m encountering more young people who are inspired to take up this Yiddish heritage, this history, this culture and make it an important part of their own identity, and this includes both Jews and non-Jews. You can say that the world of secular Yiddish culture is small for a culture, but it’s pretty large for a family.” 

Is that why Kahn and Lapsker remain in Berlin?

“I remain here not only because of the Yiddish culture scene,” Kahn said, “I remain here because of the culture in general. I work at the Maxim Gorki Theater, which is a diverse environment of people from all backgrounds. That there is a space there, at the Gorki, for Jewish history and Jewish perspectives to be part of the conversation, is really inspiring to me.

“And a lot of the work on [“The Butcher’s Share”] is a result of being in that environment. The questions about belonging and migration and borders and human decency, the ascendancy of the new face of fascism in Europe and in the United States, is a conversation that is not limited to Jewish culture, but I do think that Jewish voices should be at the forefront of the fight against xenophobia, racism, nativism and fascism, what we’re seeing today.”

Kahn said that one of the reasons he moved to Berlin in 2005 was because of President George W. Bush’s administration. “I thought that the political and cultural conditions [in the U.S.] couldn’t get any worse” he said. “I guess I was being overly optimistic.”


Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird perform Nov. 18 at the Pico Union Project. For tickets and details, visit www.paintedbird.net.