“I want to drag klezmer music
kicking and screaming back into the bars.”
That’s the goal of Vancouver singer-songwriter-accordion player Geoff Berner, with his new
album, “Whiskey Rabbi”, originally released in Canada in 2005 on Black Hen Records, and in
Europe on the Checkpoint Charlie Audio Productions label. The CD was recorded by Steve Dawson
with Diona Davies (Po’ Girl) on violin and Wayne Adams (Zolty Cracker) on percussion.
Over the past few years, Berner's music has incorporated more and more elements of klezmer.
After numerous international tours, festival appearances in Canada and Europe, airplay on
national radio in 5 countries, and opening slots on tour with artists such as Billy Bragg, Kaizers
Orchestra, Corb Lund, Po' Girl and the Be Good Tanyas (who covered his song "Light Enough to
Travel"), he's garnered critical acclaim and a cult following for his sharp songwriting and cabaret
performance style, (see press kit and quote sheet). "Whiskey Rabbi" marks his transition to a
consistent style--klezmer informed with the energy and passion of punk.
“I want to make original klezmer music that’s drunk, dirty, political and passion-
ate. As a Jew of eastern european descent, I feel I have a calling to make this music
live, not just preserve it under glass like something in a museum.”
The lyrics exemplify this approach. For instance, “Song Written in a Romanian Hospital” is a
darkly humorous meditation on mortality, played at breakneck speed. Berner wrote it in bed at
the Infectious Disease Unit in Brasov, Romania. In May/June 2004, his trio travelled to rural
Romania to investigate the roots of klezmer with their guide and klezmer guru, Bob Cohen,
leader of Budapest band Di Naye Kapelye. They returned with a deeper understanding of the
music, quite a few stories to tell, and a solid apreciation for the fragility of good fortune.
The luck theme appears again in “Lucky Goddamn Jew” with a rueful admission that suffering
has not enobled the Jewish people above the rest of humanity. “Now I’ve got my own
country/Where I am free to persecute/People with less luck than me.”
“Traveller’s Curse” is a stark, sharp-tongued condemnation of those who mistreat displaced
people. That theme is also a thread throughout the album. It’s especially evident in “The
Violins”, a klezmer setting of a poem by Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwich.
It would be tempting to paint Berner as a kind of klezmer rebel, but he maintains that he is
working firmly in the true tradition. “When we went to Romania, we found musicians
who are masterful, but can also play so loud and passionately that pitch and meter
don’t matter. And the words in the songs are full of drinking, politics and sex. That’s
my kind of tradition.”