Q&A: Daniel Kahn, the inaugural Theodore Bikel Artist-in-Residence
I can’t believe we’re less than two weeks away from this year’s #AshkenazFest. With all the hype in the office and everyone running around like chickens with their heads cut off (Chickens..See what I did there? See 11th Ashkenaz Festival logo), it was nice to take a deep breath and check in with inaugural Theodore Bikel Artist-in-Residence recipient, Daniel Kahn.
Dan Kahn will be performing in a myriad of acts at this year’s Festival and you really don’t want to miss him:
Yiddish Cabaret, Saturday September 3
Daniel Kahn, “Song Smuggler”, Monday September 5
Remembering Theodore Bikel, Sunday September 4
Q&A with Dan Kahn
Q: As the inaugural Theodore Bikel Artist-in-Residence, tell us what this honour means to you and what influence Theo may have had on you as an artist and human being?
A: It’s deeply humbling to be given this honour. Theo was a force of nature. A polyglot, polymath, a powerful performer, a progressive, a poet, a pal, and a mensch. I’m grateful for every moment I had with him and I miss him. An artist like him comes along only a couple times in a century.
Earlier this year I wrote about him in an article for Smithsonian Folkways Magazine called “Yiddish Song Smuggling.”
Perhaps the most prominent proponent of Yiddish folk song in the American folk revival was the actor-singer-activist-translator Theodore Bikel. After a career that spanned seven decades, Theo passed away this last summer. I had the honour of having him as a friend, mentor, and comrade. Singing in over twenty languages, Theo’s universalist humanism—fused with his commitment to a dynamic and defiant Jewishness—was rooted in the songs themselves. As he said, “I sing Jewish songs not because they are better songs than the songs of my neighbour. I sing them because they are mine and unless I sing them that part of the culture will vanish…” His songs were his cultural passport. He was at once an ambassador and a smuggler. He translated numerous songs into singable English and rendered them accessible to a population for whom they were not intended. He opened them up to the world.
Q: What is it about your artistic practice and personal values that makes you an appropriate choice for this honour?
A: There was so much, but more than anything it may be his ability to cross borders: between art forms between theatre and music, between languages with singable translation and the re-contextualization of old songs, and between cultures -both national and political. As I wrote, he was an ambassador wherever he went. And he was damn funny. I still tell every joke I ever heard from him.
Q: You are involved in this year’s Festival in a myriad of ways – what are you most looking forward to in your various performances at this year’s Festival?
A: I’m looking forward to all of it. Ashkenaz is such an amazing beehive of culture. It’s exciting to be able to explore so many different facets of my recent work in once place. Playing Biff in Death of a Salesman again will be a challenge, as it was last year in New York, but I’m sure it will be rewarding. It’s a beautiful piece of work. I’m also looking forward to performing with my Berliner friends in Semer Ensemble. It’s a great program. And the solo sets and Theo Bikel tribute event are a great honour. I hope I can get some sleep.
Q: Your songwriting has been said to “follow in the footsteps of Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits.” What do you think of those comparisons, and who would you say are your greatest artistic influences?
A: I can’t deny how much I am under the influence of my influences. These song poets are great teachers. I welcome the comparisons. We’re all whittling wood from the same tree. I mean, I’ve translated songs from both of them into Yiddish, after all. I hope they don’t mind.
Q: You were born and raised in Detroit, but have lived and worked in Berlin for many years? Why Berlin?
A: Berlin is a great city. I was invited there in 2004 by Alan Bern and after we re-elected Bush I moved there. I love Detroit and had lived in New Orleans and New York but I had never been anywhere so open and livable as Berlin. It’s a true cosmopolis. And I’ve found an important home in the music and theatre communities there. I especially love working at the Maxim Gorki Theater. And the klezmer scene is really blooming right now. Come visit. We’ll get some good hummus.
Q: What other projects are you currently working on?
A: Oy. So many. Later this year I’m releasing a record with a band called The Disorientalists (with Yuriy Gurzhy, Marina Frenk, and Hampus Melin). It’s a cabaret song cycle telling the story of Essad Bey, a Jew from Baku who fled the Russian revolution to Berlin, converted to Islam, and became a bestselling author in the 1930s. A crazy life. We perform the program with PowerPoint and sing his whole biography.
At Berlin’s Gorki Theater I have three plays running. Two are in the regular program: “Enemies, A Love Story” and “Fear Eats The Soul”. I wrote and perform original songs for both of them. The third is “Genghis Cohn”, a short Yiddish/German 2-man play that I co-wrote, directed, and perform in. It’s an adaptation of a French novel from the 60’s about a former SS officer who is possessed by the dybbuk of a Yiddish comedian he shot. Dark dark fun.
Besides that, I’m still playing with The Brothers Nazaroff. Our Smithsonian Folkways record is out and the film that we were shooting the last time we were at Ashkenaz will be released next month. I also have a duo program with Sasha Lurje called Strangelovesongs. We’ll do some of that material at Ashkenaz this year. What else? OH. We also may have been working on tracks for a new Painted Bird album…