(On Geoff Berner and Klezmer Music)
I arrived in Canada, specifically in British Columbia, in 2003; and being a passionate music enthusiast with Alternative Rock being my favorite, one of the first activities I engaged in was to check out on the Internet Alternative Rock artists that hail from British Columbia. One of such artists whom I first chanced upon on a blogsite was the Canadian singer-songwriter and accordionist Geoff Berner. I didn’t know what genre Berner’s music was, but after I heard his songs, particularly “Clown and Bard” and “Maginot Line,” I immediately felt that his music has Postpunk sensibilities and the idealism of early-’80s Folk. The Irish band The Boomtown Rats (“I Don’t Like Mondays,” 1979) and the English Folk Punk artist Billy Bragg (“Greetings to the New Brunette,” 1986) came to mind the first time I heard Berner’s songs. However, Berner’s use of the accordion and a flavor in his music which was new to me caused me to research more about him. Then did I learn that his music was deeply rooted in klezmer.
Klezmer is a Jewish musical tradition which originated from Eastern Europe. It consists largely of dance tunes and instrumental pieces intended for weddings and other customary celebrations. In the United States, klezmer developed between 1880 and 1924, the period when there was a surge of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants. Rooted in Folk, klezmer music usually employed acoustic instruments like the banjo, mandolin, accordion, violin, clarinet, and trumpet. Typical klezmer songs feature the plucked string instruments (guitar, banjo, mandolin) chiefly as the rhythm instrument; melodies are often rendered by the violin, clarinet, and trumpet. Almost always, the dominant instrument is the accordion, which gives them a folksy folky and gypsy sound.
Introducing Berner the Clown and Bard
Geoff Berner may be described appropriately as a clown and a bard because of his insightful humor and politically charged lyrics as well as lively, engaging, and often controversial live performances. He is what we may describe as a protest artist—in the same league as Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg. His vocals and accordion is usually accompanied with violin and percussion on the albums and during live shows.
In his youth, Berner studied the piano; but he has eventually turned to the accordion and explored the roots of klezmer music especially when he began touring Eastern Europe in the mid-2000s as a solo artist (particularly Romania, one of the origins of klezmer music). His music career started in the 1990s as the frontman of a Punk band known as Terror of Tiny Town. Soon after, he went solo and in 2000 released his first EP, entitled Light Enough to Travel. He released his first full-length album in 2003, We Shall Not Flag or Fail, We Shall Go On to the End, which contains his most popular songs, “Clown and Bard,” “Maginot Line,” “Iron Grey,” “Volcano God,” and “We All Gotta Be a Prostitute Sometimes.” This album was followed by Whiskey Rabbi (2005), Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride (2007), Klezmer Mongrels (2008), and Victory Party (2011). Berner’s other equally provocative songs include “The Way that Girls Drink Beer,” “Song Written in a Romanian Hospital,” “Weep, Bride, Weep,” “Half German Girlfriend,” and “Rabbi Berner Finally Reveals His True Religious Agenda.”
You may check out the music of Geoff Berner and purchase copies of his CDs via his Website, www.geoffberner.com.
Despite Berner’s relative obscurity, a number of his songs have been covered by other artists, most known of which is “Light Enough to Travel,” as rendered by the Canadian Alternative Country group The Be Good Tanyas.
Meeting the Bard, Finally!
I have been meaning to watch Berner in one of his concerts since 2003; gladly, I was able finally to catch his recent Winnipeg concert, on April 20, 2011, at West End Cultural Centre. Prior to the show, I contacted him on Facebook, reminding him of our brief correspondence back in 2003 when I was still in British Columbia and telling him that I would love to watch his show in Winnipeg, where I now live, and feature him in my music column in Filipino Journal. He said he remembered me! He said I and a companion would be on the show’s guest list.
During the show, Charina and I got to chat with Berner; we had some photographs taken; Berner gave us a CD copy of his latest album; and most of all, he thanked me onstage for requesting his classic song “Clown and Bard”—my favorite—which he dedicated to me before performing it. After the song, the loudest applause obviously came from our table.