By Aaron White
Klezmer’s Not Dead! It’s merely laying, a beat-up invalid somewhere in a small Jewish neighborhood in New York City. Or so I thought up until about two and a half years ago, when strange whispers of a revival led me to an emerging klezmer music scene. This isn’t the klezmer of the workers’ Bund a century ago, or that of Israel, or aging musicians. It’s a youthful new mix of klezmer, punk, gypsy (Roma), and pure rock n’ roll. Klezmer isn’t like other traditional music that has fallen by the wayside, or lives on in the minds of the infirm in far-off places. Instead it has evolved, as any music or people must to stay relevant or survive. So what if one of the musicians put down their clarinet and picked up a synthesizer?1 These new groups playing Jewish music are keeping it relevant and enjoyable to younger generations (and as I type this out, there’s a classically-trained musical organization putting a hit out on me). What’s really lost? Nothing, in my opinion. If anything, it adds to the volume and the range of the genre. Some of the bands blowing up the scene and making klezmer a threat again are: Oy Division, Amsterdam Klezmer Band, Golem, Can!!Can, and Oi Va Voi (klezmer/world/trip-hop). I’m going to focus on two of my favorite bands in this emerging scene, Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird and Di Nigunim, two very different bands with a common connection- Klezmer.
Klezmer, Punk, and Anarchy: Three things no one would ever have expected to not only compliment each other, but also get even the shyest wallflowers out on the dance floor (usually a cramped place full of kids whose pecking order is determined by who smells the worst).2
Some time in the summer of 2008, I went on a scum bag road trip of California that started with three friends and ended with two, taking us through every part of California you’ve never heard of and nearly ending in arrest just short of two dozen times. Music in my car was limited to G.I.S.M., Flipper, and Amebix as well as a couple of badly scratched mixes with music we had grown tired of since it manifested itself onto the poorly mixed CD. Somehow in a drunken state of euphoria we ended up in Santa Cruz, where I got to show off the redwood trees my friends didn’t care about and finally the SubRosa where I had recently started volunteering, which only generated mild interest and that was solely in the coffee.
In the midst of our warpath across California that left in its wake empty bottles, half finished street art, broken dumpster locks, and many satisfied religious types who helped to keep my gas tank full (we started our little vacation with about thirty dollars to our names in total), it was blind luck that we crossed with the likes of Di Nigunim. My friends and I spent most of the evening listening to the music from my car parked out front. As one friend sewed up another hole that manifested itself on his overly tight jeans, the other was snoring peacefully in the backseat and I was writing maniacally in barely legible microscopic text. The bands were pretty cool, although nothing quite got me to jiggle in any form remotely close to the psuedo-drunken swaying I call dancing. There was a long break and the small crowd came out and fled to the sidewalk, turning it immediately into a cloud of smoke and noise, overshadowed by the jibes of the police (pigs, although I don’t mean to do injustice to a noble animal) as they passed by. I’ll save my anti-government sentiments for a zine. Without so much as an indication that the last band was set to play, there was a death-scream from the SubRosa followed by a blast of sound. Of course, all present had to issue one profanity or another as they snuffed out their cigarettes and rushed back inside.
Interested, I wandered inside and was instantly immersed in sweat, hanging heavy like fog and the smell of stale booze, cigarettes, but it couldn’t have been more appropriate. The members of Di Nigunim were thrashing away at their instruments in what Lester Bangs would have called “pure rock’ n’ roll,” looking dressed for the shtetl and the gutters simultaneously. Before I knew it, they started playing L’cha Dodi followed up by Havenu Shalom, blowing everyone away with traditional songs played in a way one’s parents would certainly disapprove of. Now to return to the band itself, as I have a tendency to ramble, like my mother, who really knows how to get off the subject at hand…
For those who don’t know, Di Nigunim is derived from Hebrew. A nigun is a simple wordless tune that is generally easy to remember (Oh, No! I’ve conned you into possibly learning something outside of school). These nigunim are usually sung with onomatopoeia: yiddle, deidle, didle or bim, bom, bim. Beware though, because once the nigunim picks up you’ll find yourself unconsciously humming along, if not outright screaming mindlessly (and inevitably out of tune).
So far this band has put out one album produced by Drunken Goat Records, a label full of radical bands, electrifying acts, and great people. After four years of playing with a rotating line-up, blowing up the San Diego music scene and a temporary hiatus, I can only ask, when are they putting out their next record?
Check Them out:
Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird
For me, Daniel Kahn’s music is careening manically eastward and backwards in time like a bad acid trip, towards home. Home in this case, is the place of my ancestors (on my mothers side of course, what a good Jew I must be): Eastern Europe. It’s here that Daniel Kahn has rediscovered Jewish music as if it were a Torah buried for its own protection during the Holocaust. Music our grandparents hummed (they never could quite remember the lyrics), our parents never heard, and we are hearing as new.
The name Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird, as you may have guessed, is partially derived from the novel of the same name by author Jerzy Kosiński. The Pied Pipers of the Shtetl, Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird are bringing back Klezmer and infusing it with Dark Cabaret, Punk and the music of the Balkans. Several of these songs haven’t been heard since the Fiddler on the Roof was a reality, rather than a Broadway play with catchy tunes ingrained into the collective unconscious of American society.
The third album Lost Causes, keeps the music new and doesn’t sound exactly like their older albums, as happened with past heroes of Eastern European Punk tradition, Gogol Bordello. This new album is more introspective than its two predecessors and one notable difference is the emphasis on what can only be called an anthropologist’s wet dream- reviving an endangered sound and culture most thought dead, written and preserved in neat rows in some forgotten library, doomed to collect dust.
Daniel generally performs behind the garish mask of a bird with a large beak, while dressed like the rest of the band in a time warp straight from the smoky cabarets of a gay old pre-war Germany. Now, however, in a post-industrial playground for artists, Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird have found a home both musically and literally overseas (sorry kids, they moved their show). Dropping the flowery language, Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird sound like a more punk version of traditional klezmer and gypsy music. I don’t mean Itzhak Perlman meets Crass or anything along those lines, more like a little more oomph in the Tuba, a little more rock in the accordion (who’d have thought rock meets accordion right?). There has also been an increasing amount of electric instruments with a psuedo-surf sound in their recent albums, which have helped to create something a little more unique.
The song March of the Jobless Corps (Arbetslozer Marsh) for instance, it’s exemplary of their unique blend of old music with a modern edge.3 It begins with the forlorn signifier of klezmer- the clarinet, and quickly opens to the rest of the band, complete with accordion, upright bass, drums and trombone. The lyrics:
one, two, three, four/ join the marching jobless corps/ we don’t have to pay no rent/ sleeping in a camping tent/ dumpster diving don’t take money/ every bite is shared with twenty.
They are still relevant today, to those affected by mass unemployment, hidden employment and to people like myself, who enjoy dumpster diving and sharing (and sometimes sharing dumpstered food without telling people, like I do with my parents). This version is markedly different as it is faster than older renditions, hence the hyphenated klezmer-punk. It’s something appealing to younger generations and not solely to the Jewish community. This piece was written originally by Mordechai Gebirtig, that while not completely forgotten, has been reintroduced to the world, its revolutionary message and old sounds, born anew, still relevant for those of a Socialist persuasion.
If anything, it can be said of Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird that they’re creating a connection between the music of Jewish tradition (klezmer), the revolutionary Jewry of old (workers’ Bund, Jewish Socialists, etc.) and today’s generation, regardless of religious identity. So if you feel like rockin’ to the accordion, jigging to the clarinet, or reliving a time we can only imagine, then yes, listen to Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird.
Check them out:
danielkahn.com (Daniel’s personal site)
1 I use “their” in the place of “he” or “she” in order to avoid gender. This is out of respect for the GLBTI community, with which I am a staunch ally.
2 The band has explicitly stated that although they play Anarcho-Klezmer music they have no stated political agenda.