Listening to Geoff Berner’s Welcome to the Grand Hotel Cosmopolis will break your heart one minute and stir you to historic rage the next. (photo by Mischa Scherrer)
In November 2019, myriad Chutzpah! Festival and Geoff Berner fans (not always the same bedfellows) and I crowded into the WISE Hall in Vancouver to be introduced to Berner’s new album, Welcome to the Grand Hotel Cosmopolis. The hotel is a real place in Augsburg, Germany. The liner notes describe it: “half the space is living quarters for refugees and asylum seekers, and half of it is a beautiful, inexpensive hostel…. It’s a wonderful thing for me, as a Jew, to see this project in Germany, where ordinary Germans are committed to truly welcoming traveling people in trouble, who are seeking help and a new home.”
The title of the first song on the album, “Not the Jew I had in Mind,” comes from a lecture by Thomas King called “You’re Not the Indian I had in Mind.” Berner wrote to King to get permission to use the title, and King responded, “Don’t need my permission…. Nice thing about words (except for the ones the corporations try to corral) is that they’re free…. So go for it … and no need to credit me.… Maybe I’ll run into one of your songs and craft a novel around one of the lines.”
The album catches at being Jewish in ways that are profoundly political and not always specifically Jewish – the song, “Why Don’t We Just Take the Billionaires’ Money Away,” for example. Berner’s lyrics and melodies will break your heart one minute (“What Kind of Bear Am I”) and stir you to historic rage (“Zog Nit Keyn Mol”) the next. When I heard “Would You Hide Me” for the first time at the launch, I burst out laughing. And then looked around warily. I had thought it was only me who wandered around occasionally wondering this.
The music is klezmer punk but not always punk. “Vilne,” for example, is a beautiful song about displacement. Berner is dynamite on the accordion and is accompanied by a stellar group of musicians. Dancing is a must: as the lyrics to “The Drummer Requests” say, “Dancing in your chair is part of please continue dancing.” Berner also provides seamless translations for those of us who are sadly not fluent in Yiddish.
I’m sure I’m not the only Jew who takes this album personally – my grandfather was born in Lithuania (“Vilne”) but I’m not alone in that. As I continue to listen to the songs, I am encouraged that I can be part of a movement that is about being both honestly Jewish and radical. The music is a powerful testament to the kind of Judaism that I’m always looking for and often can’t find.
Buy the album – you will be supporting Berner and the other musicians. And read the liner notes while you’re listening to the songs. They are some of the most interesting I’ve ever read.
You can find more information about Welcome to the Grand Hotel Cosmopolis at grandhotel-cosmopolis.org/de and Berner’s website is geoffberner.com.
Penny Goldsmith sings with the Solidarity Notes Labour Choir, the Highs & Lows Mental Health Choir and, occasionally, with the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir. She is the owner of Lazara Press, a small, independent publishing house in Vancouver.