Germany’s Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird play at the Electric Owl on March 6 as part of the Chutzpah! festival. (photo from Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird via Chutzpah!)
Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird live up to the hype. They are indeed “helping klezmer reach a new renaissance, seasoning it with folk, punk and deep-digging lyrics, full of sarcasm and wicked self-irony.” They most certainly belong “to this caste of Yiddish music agitators” and their music is “[a]n absolute must for lovers of unusual, intelligent, challenging, exciting folk music and a blast at every instant.” They are “forward-marching and backward-glancing,” making “truly great art.”
And that’s not the half of it. On their website (paintedbird.de), you can read more about what reviewers have said, you can download the lyrics to all their songs, you can watch several videos – and you can get an excellent idea of what to expect when they perform at the Electric Owl on March 6 as part of this year’s Chutzpah! festival. Kahn spoke with the Jewish Independent ahead of that one-night only show.
JI: Could you share a bit about your background – how you came to be a musician, how and when you came to live in Berlin, for example?
DK: I’ve been a musician all my life but I first started working professionally as a singer-songwriter in Detroit, and then in New Orleans in 2001.
I was a part of founding the Earthwork music collective in Michigan, which has grown to a large community of artists and activists. I produced four albums of my songs with them. I first really invested in klezmer music and Yiddish after attending Klez Kanada, in Quebec, for the first time in 2004. It was there that I met Alan Bern, who was my accordion teacher. He had been living in Berlin for many years and he offered me his apartment to sublet. I was already quite interested in German theatre, particularly Brecht, and I wanted to live in Europe, so it fit.
After going to the Jewish festivals and workshops that summer in Krakow and Weimar, I had the idea to start the band the Painted Bird. And it was around then that I really started learning not only German, but Yiddish and incorporating translations into my songs, and performing in many languages at once. The band has had many members but the heart of it for all these years has always been Michael Tuttle, whom I met in New Orleans, playing bass, and Hampus Melin, a drummer from Sweden, whom we met in Berlin. We wanted to create a band that would be able to take traditional songs, folk songs, in different languages and infuse them with a modern sensibility that we take from the other music we dig – punk, jazz, new music. And Berlin is the perfect city for this band. It’s a real cosmopolis.
JI: You’ve studied drama and your bio notes that you’ve been a professional actor since age 12. How does acting fit in with your music career?
DK: From a performance perspective, I’ve never made too much of a distinction between ways of being on a stage. Songs and plays are simply different modes of collaborative or solo storytelling. As a musician, I get to employ many of the techniques I need to write, direct or act in the theatre. And I’ve never really quit making theatre. I’ve done many productions over the years, in the States, as well as in Germany. I’ve been involved as a composer or arranger of music and songs for various productions, and I’ve been acting and directing again, as well.
I’m currently very involved in Berlin at the Maxim Gorki theatre, a wonderful space for progressive work these days. The new artistic director, the Turkish-born German Shermin Langhoff, is an inspiring, powerful voice for diversity and political engagement in drama. I’ve been a kind of “house-poet” for the theatre, working on several productions as composer, actor, musician, etc. I’m about to direct a small play in their studio theatre space, an adaptation of Romain Gary’s The Dance of Genghis Cohn. It’s become an important family for me, and has also connected to the international klezmer family, as well. I curate a concert series there, focusing heavily on new Jewish music.
JI: What drew/draws you to Yiddish as a language in which to write and sing?
DK: Besides the connection it may have to my personal background as a descendant of immigrants from what we could call Yiddishland, I’m attracted to Yiddish on a purely esthetic level. I like the way Yiddish sounds, how it feels to sing and speak it. It tastes good. I like the things you can express in Yiddish that don’t quite work in other languages. And I like the challenge of trying to translate that not only into English, but into a kind of performance that makes sense to an audience that may not have the cultural or historical literacy to know where it comes from. I think Yiddish has a lot to teach us about the world we live in today, as well as the world of a century ago. It’s a language which defies borders, which defies easy categorization, which defies simple historical narratives. It’s a defiant language.
JI: Your lyrics are poetry, full of meaning, commentary on history and contemporary society. How would you describe your core beliefs/values? Do they have any foundation in Jewish traditions/ teachings?
DK: My core beliefs, which are never fixed, have their foundations in many things in my life. Some of those things are Jewish. Others simply come from being a child of Detroit in the late 20th century, being an ex-pat, being someone who travels a lot, etc. But some of what I received as a Jewish education goes against other values that I hold to. I try to take what I need from traditions and leave the rest alone. But this is itself a tradition. So, insofar as Jewish tradition contains a tradition of subverting other traditions, I’m a fairly traditional subversive.
JI: You also arrange the words of others, Heinrich Heine, Bertold Brecht, Itzik Manger, Leonard Cohen, and a wide range of writers. How do you choose, or what aspects of a poet’s words tend to interest/excite you?
DK: I work on what speaks to me.
I’ve loved Leonard Cohen since I was about 14 or 15 years old. I definitely owe the fact that I chose to be a songwriter and a poet largely to him. Brecht was the thinker and poet who kept me interested in the radical potential of the theatre to dynamically reflect the world in a political and lyrically effective way. My first plays that I worked on out of college were by him, in New Orleans and Detroit. Somehow, they were the best response I could find to the Bush era. Brecht wrote of living in “bad times for poetry.” I think I know what he meant. He was also a tremendous songwriter, who directly influenced people like Bob Dylan and performers like Nina Simone.
Heine and Manger were poets whom I really discovered in learning German and Yiddish. And now I understand that they are relatives of Cohen, Dylan (both Bob and Dylan Thomas) and others. They are just obscured behind the barriers of language and the catastrophes of history. I like to think of what a young woman I met once said after attending Klez Kanada and first encountering modern Yiddish poetry, she’s from Newfoundland, not Jewish, and she said: “I can’t believe it. It’s like a crime that I’ve been alive for 25 years and no one has ever told me about Itzik Manger!” I think a lot of people would feel that way if they could read him. He was amazing.
Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird’s 19+ show at the Electric Owl, 1926 Main St., starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30/$25. For the other musical performances, as well as the dance, theatre and comedy shows that take place during Chutzpah!, visit chutzpahfestival.com.