Thursday, February 08, 2007

Geoff Berner: Ashkenaz

I have so much to say about Geoff Berner that I don't know where to begin: on the surface, he's a Vancouver accordionist and a sardonic and satirical singer/songwriter who will have you laughing with horror or weeping while laughing... or simply weeping. He's just as entertaining off-stage as he is while confronting an audience, and is one of the most well-read gentlemen I have the pleasure of knowing personally, which has resulted in many whiskey-fuelled conversations that have gone well into the night and into breakfast the next morning.

His brand new album, his third proper full-length, is called The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride, and he's currently crossing Canada to promote it. He's in Southwestern Ontario next week, including a stop at the Brampton Indie Arts Festival. Full dates are here.

I wrote this article in today's K-W Record (only available for free today; it's a subscriber-based website) and an article in this month's Exclaim (that doesn't appear to be online yet). Transcript from that conversation will run tomorrow.

This conversation, where I get my goy on and get deep into the Jewish Romanian roots of Berner's music, was conducted for this article in Eye Weekly when Berner performed at Toronto's Ashkenaz festival of Jewish culture last September.

Geoff Berner

August 21, 2006

locale: cell phone at his home in Vancouver

What are your thoughts on playing Ashkenaz?

I wasn’t sure that we would be legitimized by the Jewish culture so quickly. Because we had a wee problem at the Vancouver Chutzpah Festival a few years ago, and I’m glad that didn’t blackball us. We were playing at the Jewish Community Centre where I learned to swim, and I got word that Jews for a Just Peace were banned from the JCC. So I had this guy from the organization do a spoken word rap thing in the middle of one of my songs. It made them somewhat irritated.

Who are Jews for a Just Peace?
They’re the mainstream peace movement, an organisation based in Israel. They’re Zionists who don’t support any of the Israeli policies in the occupied territories, which is in line with my views.

Could you tell me what exactly the word Ashkenaz means?

Ashkenaz is an ethnic branch of the Jewish people. There are two main ethnic groups, the Sephardic—who are Mediterranean and Arab—and the Ashkenaz, who are largely from Eastern Europe. The Hasidism, the ultra-Orthodox guys who dress like it’s 1799, they’re Ashkenaz. It’s really an ethnic label, so to speak, and that’s about it. There are many people who are part of the diaspora who are Sephardic, and they look different. They tend to be darker, more Mediterranean. Ashkenaz is my ethnic background, and klezmer music is an Ashkenaz form.

My understanding of klezmer is that it was wedding music played by Jews and Roma together.

Yes, it was mixed ethnicity. Those guys would never have called what they were doing as ‘klezmer,’ but they would call themselves ‘klezmerim,’ which is a kind of folk tradition that was generally passed down from father to son, or daughter sometimes.

And they weren’t respected members of society, you just hired them to play your wedding.

Yeah. The guys we met in Romania, until very recently, they would walk to the other village to play the gig, carrying their instruments. In the snow, sometimes!

Because they were too poor to have transportation, or that no one would give them a lift?

A bit of both!

When I think of klezmer today, to secularists or lay people, it’s become…

A marketing term for Jewish music. But really, the stuff that most people think of as klezmer, is part of the wedding ceremony and ritual, the party. Parts of that were overtly religious, and parts of it were just part of the understood structure of the party.

What was your relationship with klezmer before you went to Romania? Or even before you played the accordion?

I was raised as a Jew here in Vancouver. It’s a bizarre experience, because there aren’t that many Jews in Vancouver, and I didn’t live in a Jewish neighbourhood. I did go to Hebrew school and had many old relatives who practiced. I had a bar mitzvah and did a lot of study. There’s so much more to Jewish music than the traditional wedding repertoire. At Hebrew school and synygogue, we were exposed day in and day out to a vast range of music: Jewish sacred music, the new Israeli folk songs of the kibbutzim movement, klezmer, and some modern Israeli pop. As well as the ordinary Canadian secular pop culture at the same time.

Did you enjoy playing it, or did you go back to it later?
There’s no denying the power of the sacred music. I really enjoyed some of the Israeli folk songs. The bizarre back door socialist indoctrination. It was a conservative congregation, but because they were Zionists, they believed in the kibbutz, or a socialist farm collective. You wound up with a lot of socialist farm collective indoctrination that the parents would not have endorsed in any other context. They wouldn’t have endorsed socialist farm collectives in Saskatchewan. There was all sorts of stuff that I was enthusiastic about that they were exposing us to, not simply the style, but the lyrical content was always a big deal for me.

I went away from it a little bit as a teenager, but I really came back to it through touring with alt-country people like Corb Lund and Carolyn Mark. I saw how they were punk rockers who had taken the music of their own heritage and applied their own aesthetic to it, which turned out to be way more authentic than what was largely being marketed as country music. It seemed like something that ought to be done with klezmer. From what I could see, I couldn’t find it out there. When we went to Romania, Bob Cohen showed us that the roots of the tradition are much more profane and dirty and sexy and fun and partying and drinking, than maybe much of the klezmer is marketed as.

I was under the impression that the word “klezmer” didn’t exist as a musical genre until the 70s, when it was rediscovered.

The New York and Eastern American Jews were very, very involved in the archiving of Americana. They were out there in Louisiana and the Ozarks with tape recorders and guitars and fiddles—the Jewbillies! Bob Cohen, in the early 70s, he was up in Cape Breton documenting fiddle tunes! One day, one of those guys was out in the bayou, and some Cajun was like, ‘Well, Mr. Horovitz, what about the music of your people? Why don’t you document that?’ That led to an epiphany, and they started turning in towards their own neighbourhoods in Brooklyn and digging up these old guys who had been largely ignored for decades. For them, it was a matter of trying to save a music that they thought was going to flicker out at any moment.

But you’re not a fan of a lot of the music that produced, though.

Well, 99 per cent of every style of music is crap, just because of the way the need for polite music in middle-class society tends to suck. There is that effect on Jewish music as well. There’s nothing about what the preservationists did that I would say is wrong or bad. I understand what they were doing. They said, ‘We have to make sure this doesn’t disappear. We have to try to reconstruct what it was so that we know.’ The other thing was, ‘Hey, this is not disposable. This is important culture. This is respectable music.’ Sometimes it had the result of being played as if it was classical chamber music, or sugar-free jazz. You could totally understand the motivation.

I don’t think we should get rid of that stuff. I think that here’s what I as a songwriter can bring to the table: not preservationism, but I’m going to try to contribute the canon, to the repertoire, if I can. Adding new songs is an essential component of what happened in the great explosion of klezmer music in the 20s. If we want to have a living, breathing culture here, we can’t just have albums full of traditional stuff, and then the odd original thrown in there for kicks. We have to have people who are working on adding to the repertoire.

But when I think of the material on Whisky Rabbi, if klezmer music is primarily wedding music, I think of your songs as mostly more songwriter-y. Where do you think your songs fit into that?

So few of the classic klezmer records are 100-per cent wedding music. The latest The latest Di Naye Kapelye album is called A Mazeldiker Yid, and the title track is a Romanian Jewish socialist youth group song, about how much this young Jewish boy loves his tractor. There’s so much more to Jewish music than wedding music. There’s nothing to fight against here. It’s totally understandable why they need a word to market this stuff that’s kind of complicated to explain what it all is.

If you were to be perfectly accurate about what I’m doing, I’d say I’m writing new Jewish drinking songs. There are an awful lot of Jewish drinking songs in the traditional canon.

I’ve heard you say that you’d be delighted if the fundamentalist musical purists found your material blasphemous. Is that a misrepresentation?
No, that’s basically correct. I was put on a bill a while ago with a guy who was one of the great traditional accordion revivalist guys. He said, ‘Please don’t take this the wrong way, but how can you call this klezmer if you’re not singing in Yiddish?’ And I told him that Shane MacGowan doesn’t sing in Irish Gaelic. Yiddish was the lingua franca of a people, and it’s great to preserve it and it’s a wonderful language, but the fact is that it’s not the lingua franca of Eastern European-descended Jews anymore. In order for me to have the same effect and meaning that klezmer songs had for an audience in the 20s, you have to actually sing in the language that the audience can understand. It’s really important to preserve these things, but it’s not where my skills lie, in faithfully representing something with the utmost scholarship and most precise technical reproduction.

You do revel in blasphemy, do you not, sir?
Well, uh, blasphemy can be fun! It can be healthy, too. There’s a serious intellectual and cultural motivation behind what I’m doing, and part of it is that the cultural agenda in our lives has been seized by fanatics. Not just in the Jewish world, but in every major religion. It’s very important for those of us who like to drink and screw and swear to stand up for ourselves, and say, this is our culture, too! We can’t abandon Jewish music to the Matisyahus of the world, who get away with playing third-rate reggae because they’re observant Jews.

I know you’ve played “Maginot Line” in France, and I imagine you’ve played “Lucky Goddam Jew” at Jewish festivals.

I do get a little trickle of walk-outs, but only a trickle. There’s always a little trickle of complaints. But I really think that’s really healthy in music. If you’re not eliciting that kind of response from people, then you kind of suck. You’re mediocre. You’re making music that everybody kind of likes. Who would want to do that? It just washes over you like air freshener.

Back to the tradition of blasphemy, I get the impression from a lot of Jewish writers and comedians, that tragicomic satire is a great Jewish tradition as well.

Oh yeah, absolutely. I love the short stories of Shalom Aleichem, I’ve read much of Mordechai Richler’s stuff and Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. There is that tragicomic tradition in Jewish storytelling. But also, amongst the musicians, the clarinet—which is the instrument which people identify with klezmer, but which by the way was not big in European klezmer, it’s essentially an American innovation—the clarinet you have two main giants who represented the Dionysian and the Appolonian. Naftule Brandwein was the Jimi Hendrix of the klezmer clarinet. He was endlessly inventive, often rough, he drank like a fish, didn’t keep the Sabbath, turned his back to the audience so they couldn’t see his tricks and rip them off, and he died relatively young and in obscurity. Dave Tarras is much more technically perfect, and played wedding music that people liked, that never got too impolite in its style. He continued to do well and lived like a middle class guy who happened to play clarinet for a living. Tarras lived into his 90s and taught Andy Statman who are the revivalists. His style is predominant in the revival. But my allegiance is to Brandwein.

When are those Bob Cohen recordings [field recordings he made with Berner in the backwoods of Romania] coming out?

People come to him and he lets them buy him drinks and he decides if he likes them or not, and then he will sometimes let people have some. He’s very suspicious of klezmer pilgrims. It took a lot to win his trust. We have doubles of everything. We brought a mini-disc recorder, so we got it.

What are you going to do with them?
Well, we don’t know what we’re going to do with them! There has been press all over the country and in Europe about us having it, and no one has come knocking, looking for it. I try to make a living as a musician, so I don’t have a lot of time to shop these things around to libraries to see if they want me to give them to them.

In the meantime, they’re safe. It’s these 80-year old guys saying, “Here’s the tune” and then playing. Then we say, “Is that a Jewish tune?” He says, “We play it this way at a Jewish wedding, and this way at a Gypsy wedding, and this way at a Hungarian wedding.” Then he gives us a lesson in the differences in style in the different European musics. People categorize it all as Balkan, and if anyone wants to play in G minor they can either call themselves a Balkan group or a klezmer group, but they really are pretty big differences.

It’s pretty great to have this stuff, but so far nobody’s come asking for it. And actually, we’d have to ask Bob if it was okay before we’d put it out. It’s him, he’s the one. He’s been going there since he was in his late teens, and he’s now in his early 50s. He has godchildren who have children in these villages. His Hungarian wife left him in Budapest, and a clan there began saving him prospective wives. He is connected.

This guy Wexler, who is 89 or whatever, the last Jewish fiddler in Romania, people go looking for him and he’ll tell them that ‘that guy is dead. You must be thinking of my brother.’ We sat there and drank tea with him for an hour, while every once in a while Bob would try to get him to pick up the violin. He’d say, ‘Oh no, I don’t play anymore.’ Bob would tell him one filthy Yiddish joke after another until it warmed him up and he started playing. And he had clearly been playing every day. He was not rusty at all. He would play wedding music, but there’s also this huge tradition of Jewish musical theatre.

The whole thing with ‘are-you-really-playing-klezmer-Geoff’ is that it’s always been a convenient lie that makes sense when all these klezmer albums are just pure Jewish wedding music. So he played all these songs, and then new songs that he had written, new songs in the old style—arguably in the old style, because he’s an old guy.

Did he sing as well?
He did a bit of singing, but mostly he played the fiddle. He sang some apparently very funny, very filthy songs.

Where does [Berner’s violinist] Diona [Davies] figures into this? Is it part of her heritage at all?

Diona is a direct descendent of Sitting Bull. So there you go. What more do you want in your band?

Was she playing with these guys too, or just helping you record?
She had the fiddle in hand, and would get them to show her stuff. After a few minutes of hearing her copying their stuff, they would have a groom picked out for her. We had to basically start telling everybody that [his percussionsist] Wayne [Adams] and Diona were a married couple, because everyone wanted to find a match for her.


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