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Daniel Kahn: “A Tradition of Subversion and a Subversive Tradition” by Sarah Anne Minkin

From JVOICES.COM  – Author: Sarah Anne Minkin

Dan Kahn and The Painted Bird’s new album, Partisans and Parasites is an addictive collection by outstanding, creative musicians. Together, the fast-paced, high energy klezmer, and sharp, evocative lyrics – sung in Yiddish, English, German and Russian – are a necessary compass for navigating the endless moral riddles and inescapable paradoxes in which we live.

Some songs are old Yiddish songs that Kahn & co. gift to new audiences with Kahn’s English translations, including the defiant “Yosl Ber/ A Patriot.” Others are brand-new, written and arranged by Kahn, including “Six Million Germans/Nakam” a true story about revenge after the Holocaust, and “Dumai,” “a song of exile & statelessness,” (in his words) and Kahn’s first composition in Yiddish, which he sets against a traditional Chassidic nigun (melody). Anyone who loves music or politics should own this album, which brings them together with delicious precision.

Kahn, raised in Detroit and living in Berlin, says of the new album, “We wanted to make a rock album that was using klezmer and Yiddish, German and Russian. A multi-lingual, multi-national rock album. There’s something about rock and roll that naturally subverts borders that otherwise tend to get reinforced, like ideas of authenticity and entitlement. We wanted to dispense with any kind of nostalgic preciousness. We just wanted to make a punk-rock klezmer record that you can dance to.”



Dan Kahn and the Painted Bird played a full house last night in San Francisco as part of the 24th Jewish Music Festival. They’ve got two more upcoming shows in the Bay Area: Monday night, March 30th just outside of Santa Cruz and Thursday, April 2nd, in Los Altos. After that they’re headed to NYC and Michigan. Follow them – and catch a performance – here.

I sat down with him Dan before the show and talked politics — mainly. About living in diaspora and believing in it; about nationalism and transcending it; about Jewish identity, music, and socialism, capitalism, Israel, and the tent cities springing up around the U.S. (to which Kahn dedicated an old Yiddish song at last night’s concert).

First, on music:

Kahn: What I like about songs is how portable and durable they are. Joe Hill said that. You can write the best pamphlet in the world and it’ll only be read once. If you write a good song, people will sing it again and again and again.

And the music he makes:

These old Yiddish songs have great stories to tell, and the old German songs that we sing have great stories to tell. I often talk about this music that we make in terms of a tradition of subversion and a subversive tradition.

I think that we’ve been sold a lie with this idea that the traditional is somehow conservative, or that the novel is somehow progressive. I think that the obsession with novelty and with faux, quasi avant-garde, is a major component of the situation we find ourselves in today, this consumerist, gluttonist mentality, of consuming the new, constantly consuming the new. Revolutionary new toothbrush technology. There’s nothing revolutionary about that. What’s revolutionary, maybe, is singing a song that’s 200 years old, or a hundred years old, but that addresses the same emotional, human problems that we face today. I think we can take a lot of strength from the past, and from traditions.

There are things that we can learn from these old songs, from the past, that don’t have anything to do with nostalgia. They are lessons for today. The Germans have a word: vergangenheitsbewaltigung. It means, vergangen is a combination between working on and working through, and bewaltigung is the past. So it’s their specific word, which was pretty much coined in reference to working on the Nazi time, the Holocaust, that past. And I love this word. We don’t have an equivalent word in English because we don’t have an equivalent process in America.

I’m trying to create a new word, which is gegenwarsbewaltigung. Rather than working on or getting over the past, it’s about working on or getting over the present as though it were a past that we were working on getting over.

Some parts of that “present”:

I’m a Bundist. I believe in Doykeit (“here-ness”). Or as my friend Psoy says, I believe in Doyrtikeit. He’s always on his cell phone. Doyrtzhein, being there, not being here but being over there.

I believe in diasporism, in some ways. I think it’s important to recognize the different historical strings that are interwoven in the physical world. It’s also like this doyterkeit idea, the diaspora is much more bound up, connected now. All diasporas are. To be spread out is normal. We’re all living in the diaspora, because we spend half our time talking to someone who’s on the other side of the planet, or the other side of the country. Our whole way of living and way of interacting in terms of space has been completely shattered. So if we want to find our bearings in this, it’s not about constructing fluid nationalisms, it’s about using that to deconstruct nationalism.

But borders and nation-states structure our everyday lives. What do we do about that?

We need to learn to see the borders for what they are. I’m not talking about some transcendentalist ignorance of the borders, as in let’s just get past them and pretend like we live without them; I mean we need to dive into regarding them without resting on any kind of mythology that they are essential.

That means confronting them. We live within the reality of them. I’m not denying that. We live with the reality of capitalism, but nobody seems to have a problem talking about being an anti-capitalist on their way to Starbucks. We deal with the world in which we live. What we’re learning now with capitalism is that reading Marx may be one of the best ways to understand capitalism, and he probably did understand it better than anybody else.

And nationalism?

I’m reading Billy Bragg’s book now, The Progressive Patriot. What he’s pretty much saying is why should we let the right wing be the only one that addresses what are real concerns of people who are maybe on the working class, ethnic majority people? They have real concerns and the left has abandoned these concerns because they’ve abandoned the discourse of belonging. We need to address this, or the right will continue to exploit these insecurities for their nefarious purposes.

What do you think about Bragg’s argument?

I think it’s a tricky territory. You know, Billy Bragg is at the same disadvantage that I am, you know, we just write songs, and there’s only so much that a song can address. I think the best thing that a song can do is just to raise questions.

What about Jewishness: Do you believe in an inherent notion of Jewish peoplehood?

I believe in history. Jewishness is not – I don’t want to say it’s not this and not this and not this, so I’ll say – it’s not only this. But it’s not a religious identity, it’s not a national identity, it’s not an ethnic identity, it’s not a cultural identity, it’s not a racial identity, it’s not a philosophical identity, it’s not a dietary identity, it’s not a theological identity. More than anything, the only thing that, for me, can truly encompass Jewishness, is that it’s a historical identity. Which means there is something about what Jewish has meant in the history of people who have identified themselves as Jews, that somebody identifies with.

This is a very very lose definition that wouldn’t be accepted by a lot of people, because there’s probably a majority of Jews who believe that actually those other adjectives that I gave are quite sufficient and definitive in terms of determining what’s Jewishness. Some say it’s genetic. On the other hand, my Jewishness is completely opposed to these kinds of determinist, essentialist arguments. And I’m not alone. There are a lot of people who feel that way. And no matter what you read, and what other definitions others get from whatever their media source is, or whatever their idea is, I’m wholeheartedly opposed to that kind of essentialist attitude.

On Israel:

Few people talk about Israel in true political terms because it’s so wrapped up in this false ideological debate. What’s happening in Israel is not because of Zionism, it’s what’s happening in a lot of other countries as well, and there’s no special rule in Israel that they do what they do because it’s Zionist. I think that the critical voice in the political left outside of Israel needs to learn from the critical voice inside of Israel, in that they’re not interested in being anti-Zionist, because they understand that this is an outmoded ideology in itself. The time has come for true post-Zionist discourse.

On Israel’s new Foreign Minister-designate, Avigdor Lieberman:

I hear things that Lieberman says and it scares the shit out of me because he’s a racist, populist demagogue, and these are exactly the kinds of people that end up getting the Chancellory.

Let me tell you, there is nothing more enabling and unhealthy than a friend that will support you no matter what you do. That is not a friend. That’s an enabler.

Finally, he begs for a question about music:

If there’s anything that I want people to get out of [my music], it’s simply to ask some questions that they didn’t ask before. And I’m not even prepared to answer a lot of those questions.

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