Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column -- klezmer music and the ghost of German past

Me and the Painted Bird in Freiburg

Here's a link to my latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column -- on Punk Cabaret klezmer danse macabre in Germany. In other words, a concert in Freiburg by Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird at the height of the uproar over the pope's rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop... I've written about klezmer music in Germany a lot over the years (including in a long section of my 2002 book, Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.) The scene keeps changing and evolving -- and the political edge and genre mix of Daniel's group illustrates this. It may not be "pure" pre-war shtetl music, but it's rooted there, and it takes the music into the 21st century. It was a great concert, and the band's new CD -- Partisans and Parasites, is also worth buying.

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.

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