A Conversation with Klezmer-Yiddish-Punk Rocker Daniel Kahn

Daniel Kahn is a Detroit-born, Berlin-based singer/songwriter who will be joined by his band The Painted Bird at The Cedar this Saturday, June 1st.  Daniel will be joined by Christian Dawid (clarinet, saxophone, trombone), Hampus Melin (drums) and his wife Yeva Lapsker (projections). Their band name comes from the title of the 1965 Polish novel by Jerzy Kosiński.  Daniel is looking forward to performing many songs from his recent album, The Butcher’s Share. Their music is poetically and politically charged and has been described as “Klezmer Yiddish Punk Cabaret.”

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Ultimately I think that there’s an intangibly and irreducibly positive dynamic in showing up in a place and doing something in a room full of strangers: whether it’s theater, singing songs, or just making music. I think that there is something deeply human in that. It heals me.
— Daniel Kahn

MJ Gilmore, The Cedar’s Box Office and Office Manager, interviewed Daniel Kahn through Skype from The Cedar’s Green Room as he talked from his home in Berlin.  Daniel talked about his musical and cultural influences, politics, healing, collaborations, hope, and more.  

MJ: When did you learn about your family history?

Daniel: When I grew up, I had no idea where my family was from, I was profoundly ignorant of it, because my family was profoundly ignorant of it. We didn't hear anything about the old country, not a word of Yiddish was spoken to us, even though that was the language my grandmother spoke with her mother. My maternal grandmother was born in New York City in 1905. My paternal grandfather was born in Racine, Wisconsin around that same time. My paternal grandmother was born in England en-route from Eastern Europe to the United States. There was never talk about where these people came from, or their cultural heritage. There was no memory of it.

It was only within the last few years, long after I learned Yiddish, moved to Europe, and engaged in Yiddish music and culture, that I learned specifics about where parts of my family were from: Galicia, Poland and parts of what is now Ukraine and Russia (before, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and Romania. These are the main components of my family, but in many ways my greatest cultural inheritance was a kind of liberal amnesia.

It just wasn't something that concerned people. In terms of the Jewish education that I received, it was all about either a liberal religious education, or it was about Israel, or about the Holocaust. Investing in and engaging with my Yiddish cultural heritage, the Yiddish language, literature, folk, culture, music, theater, secularism, socialism, the struggles of immigration, the struggles of resilience, liberation and revolution, were are all things that I had to find on my own.  I found them very much the same way a lot of my non-Jewish colleagues found them, they felt them on a contemporary modern human level.

So, while it's nice to find resonances within my own personal background and it's nice that I was able to bring my mother and my father into the world of Yiddishkeit, it was not something that was given to me as a child. What I inherited as a child was a kind of perceived whiteness. I was given a sense of social justice. I was not raised by conservative people, but my upbringing didn't really contain a lot of cultural content. I came to that through the back door.

I attended The Roeper School.  This school was founded by a German refugee couple. They came to the United States from Nazi Germany. One of them is Jewish and they were both anti-fascists and wanted to create a humanistic internationalist school. I went to that school for a long time. It was a good place to come from, I was very lucky.

MJ: How did your early musical, theatrical and literary influences inform your music and politics?

Daniel: My first band in high school was a rockabilly band. Growing up in Detroit, I heard amazing music all the time. There still are great jazz venues. There was a wonderful punk rock scene at the time, garage rock, and a great folk community. Living in Michigan, there's an amazing community of folk musicians, songwriters and old time musicians. Later on in life, I really found a home in the Michigan music community. I was part of starting this group called Earthwork, which is sort of a label, or a collective. My spiritual music was gospel, soul music and rock and roll. I grew up learning songwriting steeped in American music. When I was older, I got into Eastern European music and languages. That's why what my band does is not strictly Klezmer music, it's really a kind of rock and roll, but the the DNA of it is Yiddish music.

My interest in Bertolt Brecht is what brought me to Berlin and the German language. Brecht's political performance and educational ideas in the theater still motivate me.

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I heard Allen Ginsberg read “Kaddish” and some other poems in-person when I was 16 years old. We're really lucky to be working with his old friend and colleague, Eric Drooker whose artwork we use in our live performance and he did the artwork for our last record.  As I have grown, I have felt that Ginsberg was a better poet than his poetry was good poetry. A lot of his poetry was hit and miss, but I almost love him all the more for that. He lived his poetry and there was something shamanistic about it in that sense. Certainly he had an exuberant spirit, free expression, fearlessness and sort of rhapsodic revolutionary flow to his work. This had reverberations within counterculture in the 1960s in punk rock. He was working with The Clash and with The Klezmatics later on in life. All these things are connected.

The idea of counterculture is a very interesting thing, that it is a sub-strata of culture that runs throughout history and that's why it's very difficult to talk about eras, or countries, or cultures in any kind of generalizing way.

I think that cultures flourish best on their borders, on points of contact with other cultures.
— Daniel Kahn

In my band, we explicitly sing about border issues. I'd like to think about smuggling as a mode of cultural transmission, that things get smuggled over borders of language, time, context, culture and important ideas. I think that cultures flourish best on their borders, on points of contact with other cultures. Living as a musician or a performing artist is a real privilege to be able to literally spend my life on borders and crossing borders and being a stranger in a strange country, Germany, for the last 14 years. I have no illusions about ever being assimilated here, I could never be mistaken for a German, nor would I want to be, but Berlin is particularly inspiring as a crossroads. I met my wife here, she was born in Leningrad, Russia, a city that no longer exists, now it's Saint Petersburg.

Objects travel all over the globe, but people die trying to cross borders. If a song can make it through, I think that’s something positive.
— Daniel Kahn

I'm definitely a fan of borderlands and the erosion of borders. It's one of the ironies of late capitalism that this water bottle may have come from a different continent, as far as I know. It's a Turkish water company, Pinar, and maybe it was made in China. So, objects travel all over the globe, but people die trying to cross borders. If a song can make it through, I think that's something positive.

MJ: You were first introduced to Klezmer music after college in New Orleans?

Daniel: New Orleans is where I first started getting into Klezmer music and playing it on the streets. It started kind of seeping into the songs I was writing. I played the accordion already. I met some folks who told me I should go to KlezKanada, which is an amazing Yiddish arts camp in Central Quebec. New Orleans is a musical city, its lifeblood is music. It made sense that Klezmer would just be part of the tapestry there. This was 20 years ago when I lived there. Then I went to KlezKanada and that's when everything opened up to me, because I could meet folks like Adrienne Cooper, Michael Alpert, Alan Bern and Frank London, the amazing revival generation of Yiddish artists. And then I got to know folks in my generation with whom I still make music. These musicians are from all over the world. Joining me on stage at The Cedar will be Christian Dawid from Germany (clarinet, saxophone, trombone), Hampus Melin from Sweden (drums) and my wife, Yeva Lapsker, will be running our projections.

MJ: What kind of music are you going to be playing at The Cedar?

Daniel: We are going to play a lot of music from our last album The Butcher's Share. The title track of this album is about commodity fetishism. It's an upbeat song about economics!  We'll play “Freedom is a Verb,” and we have a Yiddish song about gentrification called “99%” written by Josh Waletzky.  The record gets pretty dark, personal and bleak. There's a song called “No One Survives” which is a song about being a traumatized refugee. There's song called “Children in The Woods” singing about the bones of children in the woods. We'll also play some old revolutionary songs from the 19th century, partisan songs from the Second World War and some original music that I've written. Our music is sad, angry and funny. We don't do a lot of happy, but hopeful and despairing.

MJ: Are there any lyrics you would like to highlight from your album The Butcher's Share?

Daniel: Here is a line from our song “Freedom is a Verb”: Freedom is a verb, it's something never finished, it’s never done, it's something you can make, something you can take, it's something you must constantly become.

I will take a line from another song “99%” in Yiddish: Nayn-un-nayntsik iz a khavershaft / Eyn-un-eyntsik iz a khazershaft.  Which literally means 99% is solidarity/friendship/community, and 1% alone is swine-ness, or as we sing in our song, 99% is a community and 1% is a f*ck-you-nity.

MJ: With all of the political and cultural unrest in the world, is healing possible? (referencing a few authors and physicians who talk about trauma: Viktor Frankl, Irvin Yalom and Gabor Maté)

Daniel: Well, I think you're talking about the major themes of human life. We to have to move forward, we move forward whether we want to or not. There are ways of moving forward that are more destructive than others, it's not a question of belief, I know that there are processes of healing that people undertake in order to move forward in a way that is less destructive, but I think it's very difficult to extrapolate mass or national narratives around individual psychological processes despite that being a short hand for the way that people talk about peoples or countries or nations. I don't think that national memory, or collective memory is the same thing as actual memory and all too often what we call national memory is quite the opposite of either historical record, or of personal truthful reckoning with the past.

So what you end up with is a kind of institutionalized nostalgia, which can very easily be put in the service of really destructive tendencies and power structures. So I think that healing is possible on an individual and community level. We would have national healing in the United States if communities were allowed to heal, if the healing were real on a community level, if schools, prisons, and police weren't such a total catastrophic betrayal of the public. If our discourse in our media and our economy weren't such a disgrace. If our unions weren't busted and completely corrupted and torn apart legislatively, if work paid, if work were respected, if people found dignity in their communities, and they do, I'm not saying that it's this total nightmare...they do, but not nearly enough and not from the right places.

I do believe in healing. I’m not trying to be a healer, if anything I’m trying to just heal. I’d like to be a part of healing and I certainly want to support folks, but I still believe in human connection and I still believe in live performance.
— Daniel Kahn

I do believe in healing. I'm not trying to be a healer, if anything I'm trying to just heal. I'd like to be a part of healing and I certainly want to support folks, but I still believe in human connection and I still believe in live performance. I don't know if that's old fashion, but ultimately I think that there's an intangibly and irreducibly positive dynamic in showing up in a place and doing something in a room full of strangers: whether it's theater, singing songs, or just making music. I think that there is something deeply human in that. It heals me.

I don't think one thing about it. I have a whole record of Russian songs that I've translated into English. There's a line in a song by the great Soviet guitar poet Bulat Okudzhava, called “Two Friends.” He says, "Fear not the power of words of hateful feeling, for sorrow is to love a neighbor and its healing."

Michael Alpert and Daniel Kahn

Michael Alpert and Daniel Kahn

MJ: Michael Alpert is a well-loved Klezmer and Yiddish singer, multi-instrumentalist and educator.  How would you personally describe him?

Daniel: I perform with Michael whenever I can. I'm part of a group that puts on a festival here in Berlin called The Shtetl Berlin Festival. Michael and I did a duo concert there, just kicking back and forth songs: his songs, my songs and other songs. We had done a version of that in Illinois years ago with Psoy Korolenko who's another very important friend and collaborator.

He has gone around the world just awakening people to their own ability to express themselves through this culture.
— Daniel Kahn

Michael is the reason I sing Yiddish. I'm not anywhere near the only person who would tell you that. He's the Johnny Appleseed of Yiddish culture! He has gone around the world just awakening people to their own ability to express themselves through this culture. We go way back and we're dear friends. I lived in his apartment when I was studying Yiddish over 10 years ago. He's guested on our records. Our latest album, The Butcher's Share, opens with me singing “Shimke Khazer” with him.

I'm honored to have produced an album of his. Michael and Julian Kytasty have a duo project of Yiddish and Ukrainian songs that are woven together. We built a mobile studio in an astrological library in Western Michigan and we recorded the album there. It's called Night Songs from a Neighboring Village. It is a beautiful record.

Michael is a folksmentsh, a luftmentsh, and a mentsh. A folksmentsh is a man of the people. A luftmentsh is a man with his head in the clouds, and mentsh is a good human being.  His style of singing just warms my heart and I love it.
— Daniel Kahn

Michael is a folksmentsh, a luftmentsh, and a mentsh. A folksmentsh is a man of the people. A luftmentsh is a man with his head in the clouds, and mentsh is a good human being.  His style of singing just warms my heart and I love it. His singing has a depth of being deeply informed and traditional, but it's informed by really diverse traditions. For example, he'll sing an old time Shape Note spiritual and then he'll sing some Stephen Foster, and then he'll sing a Scottish song that he learned from Dick Gaughan, and then he'll sing some Lead Belly, and that's just not very far to the East, and then he'll start singing a Russian song, a Serbo-Croatian song, and then he'll sing mariachi music! This is all not to mention the fact that he is the leading Yiddish vocalist alive today who is able to sing a song from Southern Ukraine, or from Lithuania in various dialects, and he'll make them his own and writes beautiful songs in Yiddish. So I've been thinking about him a lot. I've been watching this mini-series about Chernobyl on HBO. The whole time I'm thinking about how Michael wrote this amazing Yiddish song called “Chernobyl” where he describes the whole Chernobyl catastrophe in Yiddish. It is a beautiful song. I'm proud to call Michael my friend. I look forward to seeing him at Yiddish Summer Weimar in Germany this summer. It is this huge, wonderful month-long festival of workshops and concerts. It's a really great festival. We will be doing a lot of things there this year. I'm writing a bunch of songs/singing poems for it.

MJ: How do you define Yiddish?

Daniel: Yiddish is Jewish for Jewish, or Yiddish means Yiddish in Yiddish. It's an interesting thing, I was translating a poem by Aaron Zeitlin, and I was just asking my wife about this line, because he says in Yiddish, “Ver darf a lid -- un nokh dertsu af yidish?" He uses the word Yiddish twice: In the first sense, he's talking about a Jewish cemetery, and then he says, "Who needs a song, let alone in Yiddish." So, one word for him, is two different words for me. Yiddish means Jewish, but it's also the name of this language. You can express anything in this language. When you express something in Yiddish, on one hand it makes it Jewish, because it's a Jewish language, and on the other hand it doesn't necessarily, because it's just a language.

The Canadian novelist Michael Wex grew up very religious and his father would say to him in Yiddish, "Host geredt a yidish vort haynt?’ Which translates to, "Did you speak a Yiddish word today?" What he was actually asking is if Michael had prayed today in Hebrew. So, Yiddish in this sense means Hebrew. "Did you speak a Jewish word today, did you pray today?" Whereas for me, I would say Yiddish is the word for Yiddish. Yiddish means any number of things.

MJ: You said in a past interview that, “The most political thing you can do is tell a human story, and Yiddish has incredible stories to tell.”  How do you tell a good story?

A good story raises more questions than it answers. So the best story-driven songwriters will leave things a little bit open. ...open enough for people to provide their own answers.
— Daniel Kahn

Daniel: A good story raises more questions than it answers. So the best story-driven songwriters will leave things a little bit open. Even if it has a very clear ending, I think that the broader context of what you're trying to say to it has to be open enough for people to provide their own answers. I do a lot of translation of songs and translating is a way of telling somebody else's story or making someone else's story your own, or letting it live through you. This is partly why I like the theater, this is what we do in the theater. There is always this distance, even if I'm singing about a personal relationship, or a personal experience, I'm singing about it from the outside.

There was something Bob Dylan said about the blues.  He said a mistake that a lot of young singers make is that they try to get into the blues, but the blues is not something to get into. The blues is a mode of getting out of something else, it's a way of getting outside of your own story, and maybe looking at it from a distance with a certain humor, or perspective, and that's what a good story will do, too, it gets us out of ourselves.

There was this punk rock documentary called D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage where this young punk rock singer said, "Well, I could stand outside the bar and I could tell what I have to say to each individual person who walks in here, or I can stand on the stage and tell it to all of them at the same time."

MJ: What are some of your politics and curiosities in the world today?

Daniel: I'm someone who lives thousands of miles away from the United States, but I don't feel that I have any less of a steady media diet about what's going on in the U.S. right now. Living in Europe and traveling a lot, I feel that it's a little bit incumbent on me to constantly be emphasizing how global our political moment is. Not only in terms of what's happening to the planet and what is shared, though grossly asymmetrical, but it is a shared destiny. Every issue that we're talking about is global, whether it's rights of women, rights of refugees, rights of migrants, prisoners, issues of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, authoritarianism, police brutality, gun violence...now this is just a laundry list of this daily nightmare.

There are things that are particularly local and national, but all of those things are various symptoms of a larger historical, political disease that we have right now.
— Daniel Kahn

There are things that are particularly local and national, but all of those things are various symptoms of a larger historical, political disease that we have right now. Which as much as it comes from an ascendant or resurgent nationalism, fascism and chauvinism, that disease in and of itself is also because of a lack of a certain consolidated, radical, progressive vision that has real momentum. Which probably has more momentum than we think, we're not losing as bad as we think--it feels that way sometimes. One thing that I try to communicate is that these problems that we're facing are not limited to our particular country, nor are they limited to our particular era, that many of these are old struggles. If we're ignorant of the ways in which people resisted those problems in the past, then we will be all the poorer in our modes of resistance and resilience, today. So, it is important to broaden the scope and look at other contexts. Talking about current American politics, I don't want to say his name. I think it's distracting and it just makes me sick. It's a sick joke and it's nightmarishly absurd, but he is not the problem, he's a symptom of the problem. Any more than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party Theresa May, or Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, who are the problem in an and of themselves. They are symptoms of the problem.

MJ: Do you think there is hope?

I think that the degree to which things aren’t already worse than they are, are exactly the degree to which people didn’t allow them to get that bad. So resistance is real, and there have been real gains made.
— Daniel Kahn

Daniel: Yeah, there is hope, I absolutely think that there's hope. I am a big fan of the author Rebecca Solnit, so there's hope in the dark. I think that we need to continue fixing the problem forever, and I think that there's nothing Sisyphean about that, or hopeless, or nihilistic in it. I think that the degree to which things aren't already worse than they are, are exactly the degree to which people didn't allow them to get that bad. So resistance is real, and there have been real gains made and the past is not a place where I want to live, so in that regard, there's no time like the present, and that's hopeful, it's definitely hopeful. There's hope that the past doesn't repeat itself, but it does echo and rhyme.

MJ: What do the remnants of the Berlin Wall mean to you?

Daniel: Every city sells its own history. Berlin is no better than anywhere else, but at least it can't entirely commodify, or idealize its history, because its history is so overwhelmingly awful. When I said earlier that I don't believe in national narratives, or things like that, that doesn't mean that there aren't real effects of national policies about the history. Germany, as much as it's an imperfect process, has undergone a process on a national scale that changed over the years, but certainly over a couple of generations to reckon with the legacy of national socialism, and East German communism, but to a lesser degree. The history of the Holocaust and Nazism and of that barbarism and of that massive crime is something that is not shied away from here. It's not swept under the rug, like so many of the atrocities of American history that are swept under the rug on a national scale.

That was a real education for me to live in a city where everywhere you go, the sidewalks have these little brass memorial plaques called Stolpersteine informing that this person lived in this house and then they were deported and murdered in Auschwitz or elsewhere. In terms of the Berlin Wall, it brings tourists. For the most part, where the wall was, it is now just marked by a line of bricks in the pavement, which as far as I'm concerned, I would like to see that happen to all the separation walls in the world.

MJ: What are some of your favorite films?

Daniel: My five favorite black and white films are: I really love The Third Man by Carol Reed, Down By Law by Jim Jarmusch, because I was 18 years old at one point in my life! Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders, because I was a 16-year-old at one point in my life! Hiroshima Mon Amour by Alain Resnais and Dr. Strangelove by Stanley Kubrick.


Catch Daniel Kahn and The Painted Bird and opener Dreamland Faces at The Cedar this Saturday, June 1st. Tickets are still available here.