Daniel Kahn has a taste for urban decay. He was born in Detroit and now lives most of the time in Berlin, and he readily admits that the two cities have affinities that appeal to him.
“I came to discover that Berlin is one of the most open, cosmopolitan, green, affordable, no-bull---, inspiring places I’ve ever found,” he wrote in a recent e-mail interview (ellipsis ours). “It’s also troubling, cold, dark, and rife with abandoned industrial areas. But I come from Detroit, so that’s part of the appeal.”
He’s only half-joking. Kahn, whose fourth CD “Bad Old Songs,” recorded with his band The Painted Bird, will be released next month, is a brilliant, mercurial singer-songwriter whose work draws on the reservoir of great Yiddish songs of protest. He has added to that repertoire with deft translations and originals.
In a sense, that is what drew him to Berlin.
“Berlin kind of chose me,” he wrote. “I was already interested in the Berlin of the early 20th century. But it was the Berlin of today that really got me. I was invited there by Alan Bern, of [the acclaimed klezmer group] Brave Old World and Yiddish Summer Weimar. He has lived there for decades, and he offered to sublet me his apartment there in 2004. The next year, after [President George W.] Bush’s re-election, I moved to Berlin without ever having even visited.”
For a musical artist whose work is steeped in progressive politics, the major Berlin connection is, inevitably, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. One can hear echoes of their melodic and harmonic vocabularies in Kahn’s work, but he is equally concerned with Brecht’s theoretical and theatrical legacy.
“I’ve loved Brecht’s theater, poetry, and theory for years,” Kahn wrote. “More than almost any other artist, he understood that the relationship between a narrative, a performer, and an spectator is a political relationship. He aimed for this politics to be revolutionary while still managing to entertain. This is also important to me. But it’s not all so theoretical. At the same time I was learning about his work, I was also falling in love with the American folk song tradition. Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, etc. The discovery of Yiddish poetry, labor songs, and theater music was just a natural stream to follow.”
Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird will be performing on March 11 at the Gramercy Theatre (127 E. 23rd St.); doors open at 7 p.m. For information, call (212) 614-6932 or go to www.thegramercytheatre.com.
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