Inspired by the passion of early-twentieth-century Eastern European radicals, the defiant energy of punk rock and the poetics of the best modern songwriters, Kahn and the Painted Bird attempt to navigate the narrow gap between the revolution and the apocalypse.
“We like to say we’re singing apocalyptic anthems for the revolution,” quips Kahn, “or perhaps they are revolutionary anthems for the apocalypse. That tension gets to the heart of the matter. It’s not one or the other, and it’s not exactly both.”
The band has been touring Europe and North America throughout 2018, spreading Yiddish culture around the world.
“Yiddish culture is a global culture. And we’re fighting the same fights as many of the thinkers and artists and activists of the early twentieth century,” Kahn argues. “It’s not the past repeating, however, and we have their language and their experience to draw on as we make the connection to the struggles of immigrants, Muslims, refugees, Jews, women — all people who are fighting to live freely. The past is present, and the struggle is global and historical.”
History and politics aside, the Painted Bird remains rooted in traditional singer-songwriter ballads and rocking energy, expressive musicianship and a connection with the audience. “We start at the bottom of the pit and crawl out to the really uplifting songs,” notes Kahn. “We sculpt our set to have a dramatic arc.”
Westword caught up with Kahn to get the story behind his music and how he came to find himself in Berlin.
Westword: For those who are not familiar with you and your art, could you tell a little bit about yourself and your music?
Daniel Kahn: I was born in Detroit forty years ago. I grew up in the theater and music scenes of Michigan, learned to play klezmer on the streets of New Orleans and in the mountains of Quebec. I moved to Berlin during the Second Bush era, learned German and Yiddish more or less at the same time, and founded a band called the Painted Bird. We play polyglot Yiddish punk folk. We used to call it "alienation klezmer."
Our new record, The Butcher’s Share, could also be called “Apocalyptic Anthems for the Revolution” or “Revolutionary Anthems for the Apocalypse,” depending on the midterms.
How long have you been living in Berlin, and what's it like to live there versus living in the United States?
Sometimes I feel like Berlin is the bohemian cosmopolis I used to think New York was. More important, Berlin is a border zone. It stands at the crossroads between worlds and times. The history hits you in the face in troubling and complicated ways. But I’m inspired by the city. It offers a lot of people a kind of refuge from the storm and a chance to use that refuge creatively. That’s why the theater and music there is so vibrant.
What's your impression of the way politics are going these days in the U.S. as well as abroad?
I left the States in 2005 because it broke my heart to see what the politics were doing to the country at the time. I thought it couldn’t get worse. I was an optimistic fool. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the obscene spectacle of America’s political moment can distract us from the global scope of the problem. The little Twitler at the top in Washington is a symptom as much as he’s a problem. There are Twitlers everywhere these days. And they’re organized. We’re gonna have to get very active and organized to fight them. Decency itself is one of our strongest weapons. But we gotta get active. "Freedom is a verb," goes one of our songs.
Is this a special time for revolutionary music, or is revolution ongoing?
That cuts to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? Is revolution truly possible? There’s something messianic about the idea of revolution. But here we can learn something from mystical Hasidism. I say this as a Jewish atheist.
Hasidim believe that messiah will only come if we behave in a way that will bring it about. That means engaging in life, in good deeds, in joy and prayer. Maybe revolution is the same. We have to work toward something. I can tell you absolutely that the degree to which things are not already worse than they are is directly due to the work and sacrifice of people who fought before us. I find that in the old songs.
Those folks who wrote Yiddish songs about the struggle of immigrants and workers, of the women and men who bore the burden of exile and oppression with such humor and passion, they still have things to say to the world today. I think they speak through the songs, and their revolution is still ours.
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Is there anything else you want to share about your new release, your upcoming tour in the USA or anything you want to convey to the readers of Westword?
This is our fifth album, and we’re really excited to bring it to the States. I’m blessed with powerful comrades on the stage and off. We’ve got Christian Dawid, a many-mouthed horn player from Germany; Jake Shulman-Ment, one of the greatest New York fiddlers around; bassist Michael Tuttle, a friend and collaborator for almost twenty years; and Hampus Melin, a Swedish Berliner who is a master klezmer drummer. Our show also features images and translations designed and projected by my bride and co-conspirator, Yeva Lapsker. Most of the images and animations are by Eric Drooker, the legendary artist and Allen Ginsberg cohort who created the new album cover and whose art graciously graces the record and the show.
I’ve never been to Denver before, but I’ve been dreaming of it for a long time. Probably since reading about Neal Cassady when I was a kid.
Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 7, Mizel Arts and Culture Center at the Jewish Community Center, 350 South Dahlia Street, $25.