Menu JTA Search

Ruthless Cosmopolitan: Klezmer and the ghost of Germany past

Daniel Kahn, leader of the group The Painted Bird, after his band performed recently in Freiburg, Germany. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Daniel Kahn, leader of the group The Painted Bird, after his band performed recently in Freiburg, Germany. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

FREIBURG, Germany (JTA) — At the height of the recent uproar over Pope Benedict XVI’s rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop, I attended a klezmer concert in the pontiff’s native Germany.

The timing was coincidental. I didn’t deliberately set out to counter the pernicious folly of denying history by listening to music rooted in the culture the Nazis sought to destroy.

Still, the concert started me to thinking — about what and how we remember; about what and how we forget; and about the role contemporary cultural expressions play in determining how we think about things.

I had been to many klezmer concerts in Germany in the past. The traditional music of East European Jews has had a wide following here since the 1980s, when American and other artists began to tour. Scores of homegrown klezmer bands have been formed, and several leading American Jewish music performers settled in Berlin or elsewhere in the country.

Germany’s particular history, of course, played a role in the music’s popularity.

Some Germans, especially those from older generations, became attracted as part of the manifold process of dealing with the Nazi legacy that is commonly known here as "working through the past."

For more youthful musicians and fans, however, the baggage of guilt is mostly absent. For some, the klezmer sound simply forms part of the eclectic exoticism of world music. For others, its rich cultural contexts provide stimulus for their own creative interpretation.

The group I saw this time was The Painted Bird, a Berlin-based band pointedly named for the Holocaust novel by Jerzy Kosinski. Known for making music with a sharp political edge, the band describes itself on its MySpace page as "Punk Cabaret + Radical Yiddish Song + Gothic American Folk + Klezmer Danse Macabre."

Its leader is Daniel Kahn, a 30-year-old Detroit native who forms part of the current wave of American Jewish musical transplants to the German capital.

The concert I attended was performed before a standing-room-only crowd in Freiburg, a university town in the southern part of the country.

Spotlighted on the stage and dressed in black, Kahn sang through a megaphone and switched between accordion, piano and ukelele as he chewed up stereotypes and spit them out in an almost in-your-face challenge to the audience.

Most of the songs were from the band’s new CD, "Partisans and Parasites," a collection of original pieces and reworked Yiddish songs that deftly juggles genres, styles, epochs and languages.

Kahn’s song "Parasites" tells of species that live on others who then sometimes kill them. His "Khurbn Katrina" mourns the destruction of New Orleans with a soulful mix of Yiddish and Bourbon Street. A beautifully reworked version of the Yiddish classic "Borscht" employs English translation to reveal a rollicking love song.

About halfway through the show, the band launched into its most notorious number, a deliberately provocative tune about the power and folly of revenge.

Called "Six Million Germans/Nakam," it recounts how East European Jewish partisans formed a group called Nakam — Revenge — that sought to avenge the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust by poisoning Germans’ bread and water.

The plot was foiled, and Nakam disbanded. Its leader, Abba Kovner, went on to become one of Israel’s most noted poets.

"Six Million Germans! 6 Million Germans!" goes the chorus, chanted against the background of bouncy klezmer riffs combined with a spirited oompah march.

The audience seemed to love it.

"Ultimately, it’s not about the absence of justice or victims," Kahn told me when we sat and talked after the show. "It’s not about Jews and Germans; it’s about revenge. It’s about the sense of vengeance and whether or not that really has sense."

Kahn told me how history provided an inescapable background for his work.

"I think we’re all doomed to repeat history whether we want to or not," Kahn said. "The question is, what part of history are we going to repeat? Even if you don’t actively remember the past, the past is going to come and remind you of itself."

There was something "naively sort of quaint" about Holocaust denial, he added. But other forms of deliberate amnesia can also be destructive, Kahn said.

"It would be nice if we were the kind of animal that can’t do these things to each other," he said. "But to deny that we did it then is to deny that we’re doing it now. It’s to deny a very real problem that humanity has to deal with, which is the problem of racism, fascism, dehumanization, collective punishment.

"We sing songs about this, about memory, about memory politics. But ultimately it’s not only about do we remember or are we remembering or is there something to remember. It’s what exactly are we supposed to not forget, what does ‘never again’ really mean.

"Is it ‘never again’ to us?" he asked. "Is it never forget this? We need to look again at what it is we’re supposed to remember."

A few days before I saw The Painted Bird, the music critic of The Jewish Chronicle of London, Paul Lester, raised hackles in the Jewish music world by slamming what he called "the fake roots music of the klezmer brigade."

"The best Jewish music — or rather, the best music by Jews — reflects the moment and is somehow a response to the times in which it was made," Lester wrote. "And if there is a ‘Jewish voice,’ it is not to be heard in klezmer, maybe because it is being drowned out by all those clarinets, violins and accordions."

The "Jewish voice" he was seeking, Lester wrote, was "urbane, witty, sharp, smart, savvy, often satirical and thoroughly contemporary. It also has an American accent."

To my ears, that’s a pretty good description of The Painted Bird.

(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include "National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe," "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)," and "Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe." She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.)

NEXT STORY