Courtesy of Daniel Kahn
We all know people who seem to have been born in the wrong decade — or even in the wrong century. Only very few of them, however, attempting to connect their society with that of another world, stretch across eras, and become giants — artists and thinkers like Sun Ra, Walter Benjamin and Henri Matisse. Whether Daniel Kahn is merely an eccentric born in the wrong century, or is indeed a growing giant, is the question I kept returning to while listening to “Lost Causes,” Kahn’s third album with his band, The Painted Bird.
Although the material on the album is diverse, its backbone is Yiddish protest songs. These are century (or more) old Yiddish poems by writers such as Mordechai Gebirtig, David Edelstadt, and Mark Warshavsky, to which Kahn adds verses of his own English translation. The common thread running through the poems is class struggle, workers’ rights and demands of equality. Unlike the sardonic title of the album, the words are earnest. And music is simply fantastic. Klezmer tunes turn in the blink of an eye turn into New Orleans style marches, or Woody Guthrie/Bob Dylan-esque ballads. It’s folk — that is, people’s music — and it works so well in no small part thanks to the band, which stars such young klezmer greats as clarinetist Michael Winograd, trombonist Dan Blacksberg and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment.
Photo by Frank Vena
Like many of his klezmer contemporaries, Geoff Berner, the Vancouver-born accordionist and songwriter, has a lyrical flair for pairing social commentary with the comically absurd. And he’s been able to do it with tongue-in-cheek storytelling and a Tom Waits-ian sense of balladry.
Two of his most recent studio releases, “The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride” (2007) and “Klezmer Mongrels” (2008) featured songs such as “Traitor Bride” (on “Mongrels”) and “The Whiskey” (on “Wedding Dance”), that set Berner’s trademark kookiness against delightfully truncated instrumentation. As a result, Berner has earned a North American and European cult following, a distinction he irreverently addresses on his fifth studio album, “Victory Party,” released in early March.
I never learned to speak Yiddish. As a child in the 1950s and ‘60s, it was the language of my grandparents, the language that my parents only spoke when they didn’t want me or my brothers to understand what they were talking about (and I don’t think they spoke it when my childhood friend Michael Wex was in the house). And yet, there is something about Yiddish theater and song (and, of course, Yiddish theater songs) that makes me feel very connected to my Jewish heritage.
Adrienne Cooper is one of the Yiddish singers I’ve come to most appreciate over the past 15 years or so. I’ve heard her collaborate with several klezmer bands, and “Ghetto Tango,” her CD of Holocaust-era Yiddish theater and cabaret songs with pianist Zalmen Mlotek, has been a particular favorite.
While “Ghetto Tango” was a masterful look back at a previous era, Cooper’s new album, “Enchanted: A New Generation of Yiddish Song,” is a project that is very much of these times. Newly written songs along with re-imagined versions of older songs are presented in a postmodern variety of seemingly disparate, yet somehow seamless musical styles, including jazz, rock, pop, cabaret, klezmer and folk. It is an album that, on one track, reaches back to Cooper’s mother and grandparents, and, on several others, reaches forward to her daughter’s generation.
Mark Rubin is a musician based out of Austin, Texas, who has played at the International Accordion Festival since 2001. His latest project is the Atomic Duo.
The International Accordion Festival is not well known outside of Texas, and that’s a shame. For a decade, the people of San Antonio have been treated, at no charge, to a well-curated collection of accordion traditions from around the world. Though it recently celebrated its 10th year, the festival enters an uncertain future, having lost much of its funding and having suffered a disastrous episode in 2009, when the event was almost rained out entirely. This year, rather than featuring three stages at the historic La Villita, just blocks away from the Alamo in downtown San Antonio, only a single stage remained.
If you hadn’t been to the festival before, however, you would never have known that anything was amiss. From October 15 to 17 a large crowd packed the impressive Arneson River Stage, where the performers are separated from the audience by the actual river of the famed “River Walk.”
Michael Winograd is mostly known as a star klezmer clarinetist, as well as for his multi-instrumental work with bands such as Yiddish Princess and Xylopholks. But this October Winograd, together with percussionist Richie Barshay, will don a different hat as the curator of a new acoustic music space in Brooklyn, Ditmas Acoustic.
The venue is located in the historic Temple Beth Emeth on Marlborough Road and boasts a 97-year-old sanctuary where the concerts will take place. The Arty Semite spoke with Winograd about what makes the Temple a good venue, the kind of shows he’ll be putting on, and the state of acoustic music in Brooklyn.
The Arty Semite: How did you decide to start this venue, and what makes Temple Beth Emeth a good concert space?
Michael Winograd: Richie and I were walking around our neighborhood, probably over a year-and-a-half ago, and we passed the synagogue and were like, “This is interesting, let’s go inside.” Then we saw the chapel and we were like, “This is amazing, how come we haven’t done concerts here?” It’s a Reform synagogue and the chapel itself is basically only used for services on the weekends, so it’s used very little. But it’s a gorgeous chapel, it’s the oldest part of the synagogue, and it has great acoustics.
Don’t you think there are already enough music venues in Brooklyn?
Well a lot of places have opened in our neighborhood, but those sort of venues really only cater to a certain crowd and not to any of the stuff that we do. In general they have not been very good for acoustic music. So we decided to open a venue that’s run by musicians, where the only criteria is that it’s good acoustic music. Plus it’s always hard to find a good acoustic sound space.
It’s hard to beat Yiddish Princess’s own self-description (as per their MySpace page):
“Melodramatic Popular Song”
“Kick Ass Yiddish Power Ballads”
“Influences: Kate Bush, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Mina Bern, Molly Picon, Pat Benatar, Suki & Ding”
“Sounds Like: Celine Dion (if she went to Kheder)”
Not all of this is strictly true — there’s really little resemblance to Celine Dion, for example, even if she had gone to kheder. But what’s important here is the impish sense of humor that underlies one of the weirder musical projects in recent memory, Jewish or otherwise.