Growing up, Daniel Kahn, who fronts the klezmer punk band, the Painted Bird, was part of the community around Detroit’s diverse music scenes – punk, ska, jazz and folk.
He said punk’s freedom of emotional expression and the anarchism of the music appealed to him.
Punk for him is an ethos too, one that has influenced the Painted Bird. “It’s a way of seeing music as an organizing principle for a culture rather than a marketplace,” he said.
Kahn’s passion for klezmer music was kindled while he was in college, during a visit to New Orleans where he saw the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars. At the time he was writing songs, and was enamoured by the music of social justice troubadour Woody Guthrie and absorbed by the political theatre of Bertolt Brecht.
In 2004, Kahn felt the pull of Yiddish culture at KlezKanada, whose summer program includes classes in Yiddish language and literature.
“I met the folks who taught me that a living contemporary Yiddish culture was a place where my interests and influences could come together. I was really inspired by what I saw as a diverse, open, progressive community of creative individuals,” Kahn said.
The same year, Kahn moved to Berlin, an international centre for new Jewish music, where he learned German, began studying Yiddish and explored Jewish music.
Kahn formed the Painted Bird – whose name refers to the novel by Jerzy Kosinski – in 2005. Since then, they’ve released five albums, recorded in English and Yiddish. Kahn writes songs in both languages. He also translates Yiddish compositions into English and vice versa.
One of the first Yiddish poems he translated into English was “Beyze Vintn (The Winds of Evil),” written by Avrom Reisen around 1900 and recorded on the Painted Bird’s first album, The Broken Tongue.
“It’s a defiant poem. It was a favourite song of the ghetto fighters and partisans of World War Two,” Kahn said.
Kahn, 40, went on to translate and record other Yiddish songs, including “March of the Jobless Corps,” written by Mordechai Gebirtig around 1930. The song and video are peppered with contemporary references, including placards carried by cast members with messages like “Idle as a CEO,” “Downsized” and “Welfare Mother.”
“To discover this wealth of radical songs, which still have something to say to the world today even though they were a response to the world 100 years ago, was really inspiring to me, and to be able to connect that with my own convictions,” Kahn said.
But his repertoire consists of more than political songs, he added. “I love love songs and the dances, and I love songs about food. I love songs that have religious themes, although I’m not a religious person, and I’ve fallen in love with the language itself,” he said.
The most famous English composition Kahn translated into Yiddish is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the lyrics of which are widely misunderstood. Kahn’s “Hallelujah,” with English subtitles, has had more than one million views on YouTube.
The Painted Bird’s live show features projected images by New York underground artist Eric Drooker, who designed the cover for their latest album, The Butcher’s Share. The album’s artwork is reminiscent of the work of 1930s expressionist illustrators. Yeva Lapsker designed the visual aspect of the show, which includes translations of song lyrics.
Kahn and the Painted Bird are playing in Toronto on May 30 at 7 p.m. at the Lula Lounge. Kahn will sing “Hallelujah” at the show, which is presented by the Ashkenaz Foundation and Jewish Music Week in Toronto.
For tickets ($25 advance, $30 at the door) and dinner reservations, visit lula.ca. For information about Jewish Music Week in Toronto, from May 26 to June 2, visit jewishmusicweek.com.