Jewish Journal

Klezmer music radical. Can it be? About Daniel Kahn

Ian Shulman, Austria

December 13, 2011 | 12:04 pm

yes wasn’t it miserable wasn’t it grand

when the world had an iron divide

and people could take a political stand

just by singing a song for the opposite side

now nobody cares who you are anymore

and nobody cares what you say

it’s liberty’s curse

but was it really much worse

in the good old bad old days

Daniel Kahn, “Good Old Bad Old Days”, 2011

The newly (re-)invented genre named “Jewish radical music” sounds odd even for those who know something more about Jewish music in general. What can old and lovely Klezmer, sweet and bitter forgotten tunes of Jewish Eastern Europe, fight for today? Veyz mir. Well, we can bring those songs back to life and let everyone enjoy it, after all, Balkan style is popular nowadays. We can even sing about something different. Merry songs about Israel. All right, even sad songs about Holocaust. But how on Earth can Klezmer be radical?

Daniel Kahn knows how. This Detroit-born and Berlin-based singer-songwriter takes Klezmer standards, blends them with some jazz, rock and French chanson flavours and stiffs them with his own lyrics, or at least quite unusual translations. His instruments range from rather Klezmeric accordion to a music box and a megaphone. Yet all of that would never be enough to be truly radical.Daniel brings all your most Jewish conversations right from your small Jewish table packed with your a little bit drunk closest Jewish friends and shouts them out . He sings about a Berlin love-story (“oh my lover, my murderers’ daughter, accoumplice of all of my sins”), recalls a hundred-year old anthem of Jewish workers’ movement, which seems to regain its meaning (“through the city streets we go, idle as a CEO”), recalls Abba Kovner with his after-war revenge plans in a song named “Six Million Germans” (“Can vengeance put upon a shelf be taken out later on someone else?”). Of course, Daniel’s repertoire includes more neutral songs, which are performed live more often - these are generally variations on traditional Chassidic/Klezmer tunes such as “Yesterday is Buried”, Yiddish versions of ‘Lili Marleen’ and ‘The Internationale’ and even a Yiddish-Russian-English cover on ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by The Rolling Stones, performed together with Russian songwriter Psoy Korolenko.

Kahn keeps on impressing the audience with an elaborate choice of venues - for example in Vienna he performs in a WWII bunker, while in Berlin the gig is taking place in former Nazi airfield, Tempelhof.That’s where I got a chance to meet him in person - a person in a black leather jacket squeezing through the crowd with some boxes shortly before the concert appeared to be the performer himself.

You might say that Daniel is nothing more then a provocateur playing around with his beloved pre- and in- war Jewish topics which are, of course, noteworthy, but irrelevant for the last 70 years. You might even say that this “Jewish radical music” can’t be radical or shocking anymore, at least in Europe. But why then Daniel decided not to sing his “Six Million Germans” live? Will you yourself rather put on your headphones if you like to hear “cause history has its unpaid debts / and is it better if we forget?”. Will you post a song on your classmate’s Facebook wall with such words as “You won’t ever have to leave your nation / You won’t ever have to even try / Just make a secret inner emigration / & you won’t ever have to say goodbye”? It is certainly a matter of one’s attitude. As for me, I probably won’t. It’s not because I am afraid of misunderstandings or being indiscreet. It’s just because Dan Kahn is one of my slightly drunk Jewish friends at my tiny Jewish table. And what is said, proclaimed or sung there is meant to stay there.

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