Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German capital has seen a surge of artists from the United States and Canada. Detroit’s Daniel Kahn is just the latest prominent artist to make the move. His story illuminates the factors at play in Berlin’s creative transformation.
By Amrit Naresh ///
Daniel Kahn had never been to Berlin before moving there in the summer of 2005. He hasn’t lived anywhere else since. The Detroit-area native carved out a niche for his unique brand of “Yiddish punk cabaret” during stints in New Orleans, New York and Ann Arbor, but it was in the German capital that his music truly hit its stride. “Berlin is so open,” the multi-instrumentalist told .de – Magazin Deutschland. “It’s greener, cheaper, more progressive and generally a better place to be an artist than anywhere I’ve lived.” He evidently isn’t the only American who thinks so. Though no reliable estimates exist for how many North American artists are living in Berlin, the tally seems to rise every year. “There are definitely more American artists and musicians now than when I first arrived,” Kahn said. Berlin’s unique history has much to do with the creative influx from across the pond.
After the reunification of Germany in 1990, swathes of unused space in former East Berlin suddenly opened up to artists and entrepreneurs attracted by its low rents, liberal attitudes and seemingly limitless potential as a creative space. Over the next twenty years, the city became increasingly younger, hipper and more international. A whopping 41% of Berlin’s population is currently between the ages of 18 and 44. It is almost as common to hear English, Spanish or Turkish spoken as it is German in districts like Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg.
Kahn settled in Kreuzberg, where he and his band, The Painted Bird, found people immediately receptive to their music. The group’s heady mix of folk, jazz, punk, political cabaret and traditional Yiddish music turned heads and earned Kahn a following he never saw in the United States. He also found that many other North Americans, including well-known Canadian artists Peaches and Chilly Gonzales, had come to Berlin for similar reasons.
“There is a higher premium placed on culture and the arts here than in most U.S. cities,” Kahn said. “In New York, you need to bring 50 friends to every show just to break even. New York is great if you’re rich, but Berlin gives you the freedom to come up and experiment, without necessarily going broke.” That is not to say the Berlin scene is without its problems. The city’s reputation as a bastion of alternative culture has lured so many artists that some argue it has lost its charm. Increased visibility has brought press and money and eroded some of the qualities that made Berlin special over the last twenty years.
Still, Kahn ostensibly has little trouble finding inspiration, even if the city is a little more “in” than many artists would prefer. His band has released three full-length albums since settling in Berlin, most recently Lost Causes, which has received an Annual Award from the Association of German Record Critics. In Lost Causes Kahn weaves stories that are as humorous as they are tragic, as radical as they are traditional, and as lyrical as they are political.
The tracks are tied by a sense of wonder for the city in which they were written. Like many other North American groups, Daniel Kahn and The Painted Bird owe much of their success to Berlin. But Kahn still manages to go home and visit old haunts in the United States. “I go back all the time,” he said. “I can afford to because I live here.”