Yiddish punk cabaret. Gothic American folk. Alienation klezmer. Danse macabre. Of all the music genres to choose from, why did Berlin-based Daniel Kahn opt to cook up this strange stew?
“As a genre, it’s not a very crowded one,” he says. “It’s really more of a descriptive combination of categories. Alienation comes from Brecht’s theatrical concept of the verfremdungseffekt, or “alienation effect,” by which the audience’s comfort level with a certain subject is challenged. It’s a means of provocation and question-asking. We try to apply it to issues around Klezmer music, Jewish identity, and politics. Oy, I know.”
Kahn’s background is in folk and theatre music, having played piano and accordion in his youth. He fell in love with klezmer while living in New Orleans and became involved in programs such as Klez Kanada, Yiddish Summer Weimar, Workmen’s Circle, the Krakow Jewish Festival, and while traveling in Russia and Israel. He fell in love with and moved to Berlin several years ago, describing the city as an accordion itself (“it keeps unfolding the more you pull on it”). He formed his current ensemble, The Painted Bird, to create unconventional tunes that are satirical, razor-sharp, and rebellious. They have been dubbed “the Yiddish Pogues” with Kahn as a “Jewish Bob Dylan.” The current international lineup consists of Kahn (vocals, accordion, piano, ukulele), Michael Tuttle (bass), Hampus Melin (drums), Michael Winograd (clarinet), and special guests from Russia to Philly.
The band takes its name from a 1960s novel by Polish author Jerzy Kosinski, a grotesque nightmare of human depravity and terror during World War II in Eastern Europe told through the eyes of a child. “The painted bird is a bird which is taken from a flock, painted many colors, then released to the flock,” Kahn explains. “The other birds peck it out of the sky for being different. We thought it sounded like a pretty name.”
Pretty name, not so pretty themes. Kahn is bent on writing about uncomfortable topics, outrageous happenings, the politically incorrect, and the tragically witty.
“I find myself feeling uncomfortable about something, and the only way I have of addressing it is to do something expressive with it,” he says. “But I’m not sure my topics are all that radical. I see many of the problems I want to address as traditional. They go back. But I guess that is in itself radical. The word means ‘of the roots,’ related to the word radish. Maybe I sing about radish topics.”
In the accordion-based “Rosen Auf Den Weg Gestreut,” he urges us in German and English: “If you feel inside your guts / the Nazi dagger’s blade / embrace the fascists that you have made.” “Parasites” seems like a love ballad at first, but it quickly turns into an upbeat, verbose tune with numerous descriptions of slimy larva doing their thing.
On tour to promote the group’s sophomore album, Partisans & Parasites (2009, Oriente Musik) Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird will perform on September 12 at the Colony Cafe in Woodstock. (845)679-5342; www.myspace.com/thepaintedbird.