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Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird


The people who really understand what I'm doing
are the people who read it politically.

Direct from Berlin, Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird’s second CD Partisans & Parasites
is an explosive mix of klezmer, radical Yiddish song, political cabaret and punk folk.

Partisan or Parasite?

Daniel Kahn and the New Jewish Questions

Voice of Protest: From the Wall to the world.

The Jewish Daily FORWARD         By Rokhl Kafrissen      Published May 13, 2009, issue of May 22, 2009.

Earlier this month, the 90th birthday of folk legend Pete Seeger drew 15,000 people to New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The sold-out show demonstrated the legacy, and continuing vitality, of the American protest-song tradition, a tradition that was born in the Great Depression and gave rise to some of the fiercest critiques of modern capitalism and imperialism in any discourse. Daniel Kahn, a Detroit-born singer-songwriter now living in Berlin, is part of that tradition, while at the same time creating a new musical idiom blending American-folk and Yiddish-protest song. Kahn, 30, is a post-modern folkie just as likely to quote from the Industrial Workers of the World songbook as to cite Marxist critic Slavoj Zizek. But his political sympathies and artistic creations are very much reminiscent of those of Seeger and his progeny.

For example, Kahn was back in the United States, performing, and saw President Obama’s March 24 press conference, at which the president was pointedly asked about the problem of growing homelessness and tent cities springing up around the United States. Disturbed by these images reminiscent of the Great Depression, Kahn woke in the middle of the night and set to work writing original English lyrics for an old Yiddish song about the anger of the unemployed, “Arbetloze Marsh” (“The March of the Unemployed”), originally written by Mordecai Gebirtig.

one, two, three, four

join the marching jobless corps

no work in the factory

no more manufacturing

every tool is broke and rusted

every wheel and window busted

through the city streets we go

idle as a CEO

idle as a CEO

one, two, three, four

join the marching jobless corps

we don’t have to pay no rent

sleeping in a camping tent

dumpster diving don’t take money

every bite is shared with twenty

let the yuppies have their wine

bread and water suit us fine

bread and water suit us fine

The next day, The New York Times featured Fresno, Calif.’s, tent cities on the front page.

Since then, Kahn has been performing “Arbetloze Marsh,” in Yiddish and English for eager listeners, many of whom are unemployed or holding on to whatever employment they have. As the crowd at Barbès in Brooklyn’s Park Slope saw at a recent show, for Kahn and his band, The Painted Bird, there’s nothing fuzzy or nostalgic about Yiddish song. Indeed, Yiddish song is the perfect idiom in which Kahn can create his highly political and timely art. The songs that Kahn chooses are political in themselves, but at the same time, the choice of Yiddish, the maligned tongue of the exile, is an act of cultural and political resistance.

Over the past few years, Kahn has gained a following in Europe, and now in the United States, for his uncanny ability to connect history, politics and current events in a variety of languages, including German, English and especially Yiddish. In concert, and with his new album, “Partisans and Parasites,” Kahn establishes himself as a high-art folk troubadour, the rebellious Jewish son of Woody Guthrie and Bertolt Brecht.

Kahn, who started acting professionally at 11 and studied drama in college, decided to move to Berlin in 2005 not because of the city’s vibrant Jewish music scene, but because it was the home of Brecht.

Kahn’s music reflects his love for Brechtian drama. Kahn even created his own genre of music, called “Verfremdungsklezmer,” or alienated klezmer, in an overt nod to Brecht’s theory of Verfremdungseffekt, which seeks to highlight the artifice of theater. Verfremdungsklezmer, like its namesake, prods its audience to action through humor and questioning. With The Painted Bird (named after Jerzy Kosin´ski’s grotesque novel of World War II), Kahn often appears onstage in papier-mâché bird masks, alternately playing an accordion, cigar box ukulele, harmonica and electronic bullhorn.

His original songs evoke a Brechtian level of discomfort by problematizing heroes and making the grotesque sympathetic. For example, “Six Million Germans/Nakam” recounts the story of the hero of the Vilnius (known in Yiddish as Vilna) partisans, Abba Kovner, who was among the brave men and women who fought, with few weapons and terrible odds, against the Nazis and their collaborators. Less discussed is Kovner’s decision, with a group of friends, to take revenge on the Germans after the war. Calling themselves Nakam (revenge), they concocted a plan to poison German water supplies and take millions of German victims in retribution. The song, performed as an upbeat klezmer polka, jarringly juxtaposes subject and tone to bring up two of Kahn’s favorite themes, violence and revenge, and forces the listener to question the nature of heroism and justice.

Reworking and re-imagining Yiddish songs, Kahn decries the excesses of modern-day capitalism and sings of contemporary tragedies. Although “Arbetloze Marsh” was written too recently to make it onto the CD, another song on “Partisans and Parasites” voices a similarly fiery populist outrage. “Khurbn Katrina/The Destruction of New Orleans” is perhaps the most compelling moment on the CD. It is based on the 1912 Yiddish song “Dos Lid fun Titanik,” written about the sinking of the Titanic. The inspiration for “Khurbn Katrina” was, of course, Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration’s disastrous failure to respond to the suffering of the people of New Orleans.

To Kahn, New Orleans is of more than just theoretical interest. He spent a year there after college as a labor organizer working with nurses. And New Orleans is where he was first introduced to contemporary Jewish music. The destruction of New Orleans is personal for Kahn, and he directs his anger at an administration that seemed to do little to prevent the devastation of one of America’s oldest cities. “Khurbn Katrina/The Destruction of New Orleans” is in two parts; the first verses were written collaboratively in Yiddish, and the second, written solely by Kahn, is completely in English. The song begins mournfully, staying close to the Yiddish original, and then transforms into a raucous, New Orleans funeral march in English, with Kahn not so much singing as crying out in mourning:

two lovers they are peacefully lying

in a peace not a soul could disturb

they cried out ‘my dear God we are dying’

but the President seems not to have heard

just imagine, good people, the ruin

how terrible is the wrath of the Lord

with the water from the lake down to Bourbon

from Canal to the Lower 9th Ward

oh my Lord…

Kahn has been touring Europe nonstop with a brilliant band of pan-European collaborators, Jewish and non-Jewish, such as Russian singer/journalist/academic Psoy Korolenko and Moscow-based blues guitar hero Vanya Zhuk. “Nakam/Six Million Germans” is one of Kahn’s most popular songs and already has been translated into German by a German fan of the song. In Europe, where history is never too far away, Jews and non-Jews are hungry to talk about the complicated legacy left by the slaughter of World War II.

The contemporary Jewish drive to recover a broken past doesn’t exist in isolation, but is accompanied by a larger European desire to heal other cultures also devastated by the losses of World War II, including, but not limited to, the loss of Jewish culture. For Kahn, using old Jewish songs and musical traditions makes sense, not because of their peculiar qualities, indeed, but because of their universality. As Kahn told me a few months ago: “Every people’s story is unique. I’m not sure that it is the unique qualities to the Jewish experience that give it its meaning… it might be the qualities that Jews share with other people: oppression, poverty, isolation, otherness.…” With “Partisans and Parasites,” Kahn and his collaborators force us to question the unique, and the universal, for ourselves and for our neighbors, and for our shared future.

Rokhl Kafrissen is working on a book called “The Myth of the Yiddish Atlantis” and writes for Jewish Currents magazine.

As published in

Detroit native, singer, songwriter and stage actor Daniel Kahn, and his his group, The Painted Bird is an eclectic mix of punk cabaret, radical Yiddish song, Gothic American folk and Klezmer Danse Macabre – Verfremdungsklezmer.

Based in Berlin since 2005, Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird released their first album in 2006 entitled ‘The Broken Tongue’ to much acclaim. Singing in English, Yiddish and German, Kahn’s songs address political issues and Jewish social movements such as the Bund while accompanied with klezmer, punk and folk melodies.

Joined by upright bassist Michael Tuttle, drummer Hampus Melin and a rotating roster of international musicians such as Michael Winograd, Paul Brody and Dan Blacksberg, Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird have travelled around the globe to play for fans and comrades at rock clubs, theatres, festivals and shtetls.

Russia's klezmer revival
Published: 04/09/2008

By: Grant Slater

An annual klezmer festival in Moscow helps revive interest
in Jewish music and culture in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Daniel Kahn

MOSCOW (JTA) -- Holding a music box up to the microphone, Daniel Kahn asks his audience to stand at attention and spins the crank to play a tinny rendition of "The Internationale," a socialist workers' hymn laden with meaning in this post-Soviet capital.

With a heave at the bellows of his marble-red accordion and a stomp of his boot, he then sounds the whistle for the night shift of the International Klezmer Union's chapter in Moscow.

A two-hour peal of Jewish musical folklore follows, the lyrics spewing from the stage in four languages: English, German, Yiddish and Russian.

"When I'm with the Russians, it's always a party," Kahn says.

This was the final sprint of the fourth annual Moscow Yiddish Fest, a weeklong festival of music of the Jewish Diaspora that brought together a global cast of performers to capitalize on a resurgent interest in Jewish music here. They played to packed houses: concert halls during the day, clubs at night.

The festival was founded by Anatoly Pinsky, an educational scholar and adviser to the Russian Ministry of Education. Originally called Dona-Fest, after the Yiddish band Pinsky created, the festival has grown every year. It also has gained the support of the Federation of Jewish Communities, Russia's largest Jewish umbrella organization, and the Moscow city government.

When Pinsky died in December 2006, his daughters and community members kept the festival going.

With its growing stature, the festival enables musicians from around the world to experience the distinctive Muscovite brand of Yiddish music.

"Many of our musicians were going outside the country to play at other festivals," said one of Pinsky's daughters, Zoya Pinskaya. "We wanted to bring them here to see what we have. Now it's a tradition."

The festival was comprised of three gala concerts, two in concert halls and one at a Jewish community center. Seminars and academic discussions on Yiddish music also were featured throughout the week. Kahn played two shows in posh Moscow nightclubs with a rotating lineup of festival participants.

At the final concert hall performance, more than 50 musicians packed the stage for a farewell performance conducted by Frank London, a trumpet player from the New York-based Klezmatics.

"When I started showing up here years ago, they would stand up there with a tape recorder and sing in broken Yiddish," London told JTA. "Now it's more ingrained into their consciousness."

As with other facets of Jewish culture, klezmer music suffered under the communist era. London said it took 10 years from the fall of the Soviet Union for an organized klezmer scene to emerge in Moscow. It has been getting closer to its pre-Soviet roots ever since.

Psoy Korolenko, a prolific poet and musician who was involved at the festival's beginning, said this gathering and others like it provide an opportunity for Klezmer musicians to bond.

"These conventions create intentional communities," Korolenko said. "Without this the music would stop."

With his wild, gray-flecked beard and mane to match, Korolenko was Kahn's right-hand man throughout the weekend, singing backup and loosely translating off-color jokes for Russian-speaking audiences.

On the concert hall stage last Saturday night, Korolenko and Kahn stood out from the staid, Yiddish choral acts and classical clarinet solos as they tried to convince the audience to sing along to a tongue-in-cheek tune about a weeping Russian cosmonaut. The audience wasn't interested.

But under the low lights of an upscale Moscow nightclub the next night, Kahn's brand of klezmer found a more receptive crowd. Ebullient Israeli expatriates, Russians and even a Chabad chasid hiding behind sunglasses and a baseball cap sang along with fervor.

The set was at turns bawdy and contemplative, swinging from an up-tempo Russian dance tune to a plodding treatise on Zionism. Kahn's music and lyrics also reveal an interest in leftist Jewish politics, evident in the group's most recent homage to a mythical klezmer union -- klezmer bund, in German -- and the music-box rendition of the socialist anthem.

"I was a bit nervous playing it in” the former Soviet Union, Kahn said, “but everyone there seems to love it.”

Kahn, 29, raised in Detroit and now living in Berlin, is a central player in Germany's klezmer scene. When he was 18 years old, he bought an accordion from a pawn shop in Ann Arbor, Mich., took it home and learned to play "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Since then he has led a nomadic life. After graduating from the University of Michigan, where he studied theater, Kahn lived in New Orleans and New York before moving to Berlin. Along the way he has performed in Jewish theater, organized folk festivals and played in lounge acts.

Kahn also found a gateway back to Jewish culture through klezmer, literature and language, he said, gradually exploring his own Jewish identity.

In Berlin, he and his band recorded an album of what he calls "alienation klezmer music” -- a combination of radical Yiddish tunes, American gothic music and punk cabaret that draws on his travel experiences. Kahn said that translating lyrics from Yiddish and German to English has become a major interest and source of inspiration for his listless music.

"Home is a tricky thing; home is people for me,” he said. Yiddish “has a sense of alienation. The language is loaded with prejudices and misconceptions. It's very rich."

The music scenes in Berlin and Russia are strongly intertwined. Berlin has a vibrant underground music scene built on the foundations of Russian groups, Jewish and secular, who frequently make the trip between Moscow, St. Petersburg and Berlin.

Among them is Naekhovichi, a Jewish group with a shuffling lineup that provided the rhythm section for several performances at the festival. At home with blues riffs and dance beats, the group is comprised of mostly secular players, but they chose to chase their grandfathers' Jewish roots in Odessa with their music.

Fyodor Mashendzhinov, the drummer for Naekhovichi, said his 4-year-old band plays two types of gigs: synagogues in Russia and club shows in the underground klezmer scene.

Lately, he said, the two worlds have started to merge as Jewish music has become a more stable part of the community.

"It's very funny to me to see Chasidim and older people in the clubs listening to us," Mashendzhinov said. "Usually you can only see these people in synagogues, but we are playing this music and it is their cultural background."

5/3/2007 JN-Jewish News Arts & Entertainment

Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird

ARTS: Out and About- May 3, 2007

Gail Zimmerman
Arts & Entertainment Editor

Notes From Ann Arbor


Detroit-area native Daniel Kahn moved to Berlin in the summer of 2005. In the fall of that year, he formed the Painted Bird, a band named for the infamous book by Jerzy Kosinski. Featuring a rotating roster of some of Berlin and New York's best young klezmer and Balkan players, the ensemble performs a combination of political cabaret, radical Yiddish song, American punk folk and klezmer - fronted by singer-songwriter Kahn on vocals, accordion and piano; U.S. expat composer Michael Tuttle on upright bass and Swedish drummer Hampus Melin.

In the summer of 2006, the band completed its debut album, The Broken Tongue, the fifth CD of original music Kahn has produced but one marking a shift from indie folk to klezmer-based music. It includes a number of songs in Yiddish, and one - a Bertolt Brecht piece - in German.

At the University of Michigan, Kahn studied acting, directing, playwriting and poetry, winning U-M's most prestigious writing award, the Hopwood, three times and publishing Daylight Savings, a collection of his poems, with Ornithology Press. After graduating and traveling, he moved to New Orleans in 2001 to focus on music and theater. There he played everything from late-night piano lounge lizard gigs to bluegrass jams, eventually directing, producing, acting and composing music for a well-received production of Brecht's Man Is Man.

After leaving New Orleans, he settled in New York, soon to be lured back to Michigan to write and perform music - for Planet Ant's Lehrstucke, Ann Arbor Performance Network's Threepenny Opera and Jewish Ensemble Theatre's The Dybbuk (for which he won a 2004 OPIE for his musical score). He released his experimental folk rock Detroit CD, Uprooted Oak, in 2005 and helps produce a folk fest every fall on a farm in northern Michigan.

Now an integral part of Berlin's folk and klezmer scene, Kahn plays in some seven different groups and musical projects and tours mostly around Europe. He returns to play his home state 8 p.m. Thursday, May 10, at Ann Arbor's Kerrytown Concert House,

“Kahn writes like the rainy ghost of Woody Guthrie hitched a ride with Tom Waits to New Orleans, spilling accordions, ukuleles, busted pianos, and broken dreams all over the road from Brooklyn to the bayou.”
Detroit Metro Times