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The inspiring women of the Weimar cabarets

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Adi Braun

On the stages of the Weimar Republic’s cabarets, women were openly critical of the Nazis, and one of the singers, Claire Waldoff, even used to poke fun at Nazi generals.

Waldoff was so popular, she got away with it until 1933, when Hitler rose to power and Weimar, the German republic that had existed from 1919 and gave Germans unprecedented social freedoms, collapsed.

Almost overnight, the cabarets closed, because the nature of cabaret was to be outspoken and politically critical, and because many of the artists were Jewish, said jazz singer Adi Braun.

While Braun was researching the women who sang in Berlin’s cabarets for a course she taught at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, some of them came to her in a dream. “In the dream, these singers came to me and they said, ‘Vergiss uns nicht,’ which is, ‘Don’t forget us,’ ” Braun said.

With her latest album, Moderne Frau, Braun pays homage to these long-forgotten women. They include Waldoff, Blandine Ebinger, Margo Lion, Trude Hesterberg, Kate Kühl and Josephine Baker, to name a few.

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While women dominated on the cabaret stages, many of the producers and songwriters were Jewish men. Among the songwriters was Friedrich Hollaender, who wrote Marlene Dietrich’s signature song, Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It), for the 1930 film, The Blue Angel, which Dietrich starred in.

Songs for the cabaret shows were usually written on the day of the performance. The songwriters and performers got together in the mornings to produce material – murder ballads, prostitute songs, as well as satirical and socio-political songs – for evening shows.

The singers, some of whom came from classical backgrounds, expressed themselves on stage, Braun said. “As a classical vocalist, you strive for purity of sound, and these women – not in all songs, but in some of them – broke away from making pretty sounds, because they wanted to be realistic. They really explored what the female voice was able to do.”

Waldoff had a “screechy, comical voice and it wasn’t pretty, conventionally speaking, but what she did with it in the songs is so highly unique,” Braun said.

Waldoff also defied convention in her personal life by living openly with her female partner, Olga von Roeder. Gestern (Yesterday), one of three songs Braun wrote for her latest album, was inspired by the lesbian couple. In the song, Braun imagines that one of the women is Jewish. “I was thinking about the particular time and what kind of love might have been totally impossible. You could have had a German non-Jewish man and German Jewish woman. That would have been very difficult, too. I just wanted to up the ante and make it two women, which would have been nearly impossible,” Braun said.

In Josephine, another of her original songs, Braun remembers American entertainer Josephine Baker, a star in Paris and Berlin, who influenced German singers. At the Folies Bergère cabaret music hall in Paris, Baker caused a sensation by dancing semi-nude in a G-string ornamented with bananas. Baker – a single, black woman – adopted about a dozen children from different cultural and racial backgrounds. “She was another woman who was way ahead of her time,” Braun said.
On Moderne Frau, Braun has included several songs by Kurt Weill, although Weill’s music was never performed in Berlin cabarets. Braun has recorded a German rendition of the well-known Weill composition, Mack the Knife from Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Braun sings a swing version of the song on her album. “So that’s a newness we bring to it,” she added.

The CD, which is available at adibraun.com, includes a booklet with English translations of the German song lyrics. The album’s first launch sold out. It’s going to be launched again at 7 p.m. on Dec. 10 at Toronto’s Jazz Bistro. For reservations, visit jazzbistro.ca.