We Shall Not Flag Or Fail... is a full-length, completely acoustic, accordion singer-songwriter record. Most of what you hear on the disc is Berner’s distinctive voice, accompanied by his accordion, Estella. Here and there, the sound is augmented by guest musicians, but some tracks, such as “We All Gotta Be A Prostitute Sometimes”, present the songs in a stark, some might say bizarre arrangment of solo voice and accordion....
“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”, to be released in February 2005 on Black Hen Records. The CD was recorded by Steve Dawson with Diona Davies (Po’ Girl) on violin and Wayne Adams (Zolty Cracker) on percussion
“I want to make original klezmer music that’s drunk, dirty, political and passionate. 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 music is identifiable as klezmer, with its bittersweet evocative melodies, but it can also shatter and burn with dissonant fury. Davies’ virtuosic violin isn’t afraid to be ugly, and Berner’s expressive voice can rise to a tortured bellow. Adams’ percussion drives tempos that sometimes accelerate wildly out of control.
The lyrics are similarly impolite. The title track is sung from the point of view of a fugitive clergyman who is determined to “Stay alive/And drunk/And unemployed.” The song “Drunk All Day”, sung by Davies, is self-explanatory.
“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, the 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 deeper apreciation for the fragility of good fortune.
“Lucky Goddamn Jew” among other things, is 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 a thread throughout the album. It’s especially evident in “The Violins”, the lyrics of which are a poem by Mahmoud Darwich. “Darwich is considered to be the poet laureate of the Palestinian resistance movement. I guess the fact that we’ve set it to klezmer makes a pretty clear statement in itself.”
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 players who are masterful, but they also have that ability to choose ‘wrong’ notes, saw ‘too’ hard with the bow, to sing 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.”