A Punk Yiddish Cabaret: An Interview with Daniel Kahn


The Detroit musician, songwriter and actor Daniel Kahn who meanwhile lives in Berlin is the leader of a Band project called „The Painted Bird“. In spring 2009 their new album „Partisans & Parasites“ was released. Some of the best musicians were part of this album: Paul Brody (Tsadik’s Sadawi) and Frank London (Klezmatics, Klezmer Brass All-Stars). If you expect traditional klezmer music you might be disappointed and look for someone else but if you like English, Yiddish and German Songs which are sad, angry, sarcastic, tragic, macabre and humorous then you will love Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird…

Interview: Anke Dreyer

How would you describe your music to someone who doesn’t know it?

Daniel Kahn: It depends on whom I’m describing it to. There are different components in our music. One can say that it’s klezmer music but it’s not really traditional klezmer music. What I try to bring to it has major influences in folk music in America, songwriting, punkrock and then there is the theatre and cabaret music– specifically Brecht, Eisler. The combination of these elements is a constructed one, but these are the different things that I’m interested in, so for me it makes sense. But when people who I meet in the street ask me, I say it’s a kind of Yiddish Punk Cabaret. Its probably the best way to encapsulate it but it’s not exactly klezmer music and the language is important. I mention that I sing in English, Yiddish and German and sometimes even other languages.

But there are many people who don’t understand Yiddish.

Right, they don’t know what Yiddish is and then you have to explain. Yiddish is a European language spoken for thousand years in Central and Eastern Europe and now its spoken all over the world by few people. It has components of twenty different languages in it and it’s a truly international language.

Do you explain the songs before you sing them?


Because the audience doesn’t know the text and I think in your music the text is very important…

The text is very important for me. And if I’m playing for an audience that speaks Yiddish, of course they’ll understand, but more often people speak at least English and then I don’t have to explain as much. I try very rarely sing songs only in Yiddish. But I’m doing that more and more because I’m becoming interested in also just being a Yiddish singer, not always translating songs. My initial approach to music a few years ago was to always sing an English version within the song. You hear the original and you hear it first. It turned me off giving someone a translation first and then performing the original. People would be thinking about the translation. I like what happens when I hear songs that I don`t understand. I often just sing in English and hope people understand that, but lately on this last tour I been explaining more in German and even singing a German version on a couple of songs.

What should the audience take with them when they leave your concert?

I hope they will take something with them that they didn’t bring with them when they came in. And if there is any one thing that I hope that will be, it will be in the form of questions. I’m only interested in posing questions. I think that actually messages are best delivered in form of questions. Even though the songs we are singing are a somewhat didactic. Some are just straight political songs. But many are from another time and another political context. So there are also questions to arise out of that.

Can you give an example for questions?

It depends. Each song has certain questions that arise. So I can’t say from the whole performance what a question might be. I mean, for instance, our new album it’s called “Partisans and Parasites”. So I guess some of the questions that I want pose with this collection of songs is: What does it mean to fight for a cause? What does it mean not to fight against power? What does it mean to remember history? To forget it? What does it mean to fight too much? I guess that would be the questions of partisanship. And for parasites: What does it mean to be dependant on somebody else?

Where do you get your energy for all your different projects? You are a musician, an actor, you write music, and you are part of a Folk collective in Michigan.

I don’t sleep enough. It’s a strange job, this life. I don’t know how I do this. I’m lucky to do the theatre that I want to. I can take the chance every couple of years to do a theatre project either in Berlin or in America. This collective in Michigan is called Earthwork Music. It is a wonderful very collaborative community of artists, songwriters and musicians and we have a festival every year. That`s home for me. I go back home. I’m happy to be a part of them.

You do different kinds of music. For example Indie Folk. That’s very different from klezmer.

It isn’t, it isn’t. I think there is a through line. You know, my first interest as a writer and as a performer is telling stories. Story telling is the most important thing for me. I’m not interested so much in expressing myself, so much. I’m interested in songs and the stories that they tell. A hundred-year-old song or a song that I wrote now or a song that a friend of mine has written– I’m interested in telling those stories. So that’s one element. The other element is language, the language of the text and the language of the music.

A singer or songwriter folk style is one kind of folk music and we have a certain musical language in the English language, American style, folk, or punk rock or blues, whatever. There is a certain musical vocabulary. I still try to draw in that vocabulary. For so many musicians that is just a default because of pop music. I don’t want draw on that language as a default. Using the Klezmer idiom as a musical language is also a choice. I guess one of the things that I like to stress with that choice is that it is good music and it’s underplayed and it’s often downplayed. It’s a very rich musical language that is underexplored except by very serious artists. But there are categories and then there are categories. Like, I love this “world music” thing. I remember what Louis Armstrong said about folk music: “It’s all folk music. I never heard a horse sing a song.” Well it’s all world music to me. I never heard a Martian sing a song. I don’t have a problem with categories. Categories don’t bother me. What bothers me is labels because they go over the objects they try to describe. You end up only seeing the label. And that’s what I’m not so interested in.

Could you imagine to do just one thing maybe just be musician, just be a writer?

I think that I do just one thing. I don’t really see it so separate. Music is also a form of writing for me. I write music and I write songs.

But you do different subjects.

Maybe different subjects but simular themes and it goes together through my person. I like to imagine doing one thing when I feel that I’m doing to much. But I’m very lucky. I think the musicians life is like an overlooked loophole. It’s really unfair to the rest of the world that we travel around, sing our songs and play our music and people pay us. I feel really guilty about it. (laughs)

Why? You bring joy to the people.

I hope so. I don’t know. We were described recently as a very „unbequeme“ Band.

Sometimes you have to say something inconvenient to make people understand…

I think so, too. Yes, of course

You play a lot of instruments. What is your favourite one?

I wouldn’t travel without an accordion. The things that I generally have with me are an accordion, a ukulele with some harmonicas and a case and sometimes a megaphone. I like the piano and I like the guitar. But I really love the accordion. It’s something really evil about it. They used to believe in the church that instruments with free reeds, like the flute, that they were devil instruments and their policy was to build a giant version of this and keep it in the church. That’s what the organ is. This was a sort of the devil in chain. The people kept it in the church and under control. The accordion is precisely taking out of the church and into the world where it really can do some damage. (laughs)

When you were in New Orleans you cared also about the Labour Union. How did it come to this?

I was living in New Orleans and I was trying to make theatre and make music and the job that I had was working for a community organizing group that also working for the service worker’s Union. So I did some organizing there. It wasn’t a fulltime Union job but I spent my whole life around union people. I come from Detroit. That is a town built by American workers. I’m always been close to Union people. I remember folk songs I learned when living in Detroit. I’m fell in love with writers like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan. Years later I fell in love with the Yiddish labour songs. It was this repertoire that grabbed me and still holds me. That is the long history of the Jewish Labour Bund and Jewish socialism also. And it’s still relevant In America for example when you lose your job you have nothing. You are on your own. I can sing a song that was written in Minsk a hundred years ago about somebody in very similar position and this resonates all the more. The fact that these problems are old problems tells me that we have people that we can learn from. We have examples. This is a long struggle.

Did you grow up with Jewish tradition?

Yes, I went to temple, had Bar Mitzvah and I was educated as a Reform Jew. But I’m not religious anymore.

What do you like and what do you hate in your daily life?

I do like coffee. I enjoy the “Thermalbad”. I hate people who are inconsiderate. That bothers me. I hate this bishop Williamson. He can go to hell. (laughs)

What are your next projects?

Well, right now we really trying to stand behind “Partisans and Parasites” and take that around as much as possible. We are trying to get this record out there. I have another “Painted Bird “project that is in the works. It will be more balanced, with more piano. But I also have this project that I love with Psoy Korolenko who is an amazing singer from Moscow. He and I made an album which came out last year. We call it: “The Unternationale”. We recorded it in Tel Aviv. Psoy is one of the smartest people I ever met. He is mysterious. He and I love translating. We are both interested in political Yiddish songs. We are both left wing and we sing left wing songs but much more ironic. It’s less aggressive than the Painted Bird’s projects. We sing anti-zionist songs from a hundred years ago but also aggressively militant zionist songs, a Yiddish translation of the sympathy for the devil by the Rolling Stones songs, and more. It’s totally mixed. It was a very spontaneous recording. The next Unternational will focus on Russia and the third Unternational will maybe focus on Germany. I want to sing Yiddish songs in German and German songs in Yiddish. We are trying to destroy borders with our music. Or at least misplace them.