Bente Kahan is a Yiddish cultural promoter par excellence and one of the most prominent ambassadors for klezmer music. She is limited by neither content nor geography.
In the last twenty years, Bente Kahan (1958) has toured many parts of the world and since 1990 has run her own theatre, Teater Dybbuk in Oslo, named after the best known Yiddish play, The Dybbuk, which is about being possessed by a dead soul. The theatre has been a lively cultural centre and has aroused attention with its stylistically sound and at the same time untraditional productions. The focus is always on the music, while the dramatic texts alternate between cabaret and theatre. The purpose is to portray history, both the one we want to know about and the one we don’t. In Yiddish art, the distance between laughter and tears is always short.
Wherever Bente Kahan has performed, the critics have stressed her elegant, conscious balance between the powerful and the vulnerable, which puts the audience in a situation where it actually has to choose whether it wants to applaud or sit in respectful silence. Kahan’s expressive force is so strong that, regardless of time, place or surroundings, she provides a dramatic experience that is not easily forgotten.
Klezmer is closely related to gypsy music. The term means wandering musician and that is precisely what Bente Kahan is. Her father was a Romanian Jew, her mother Norwegian-Jewish, and she has lived in many countries and learned their languages. She studied drama in Tel Aviv and New York, graduating in 1981. She is married to a Pole and her records are released and her performances presented in up to three languages. She has been compared with everyone from Lotte Lenya to Bessie Smith, and she manages to break down artificial barriers between cultures.
The Dybbuk Theatre’s first performance and record, Yiddishkayt (1990) with Gjertrud’s Gipsy Orchestra, consisted of sacred and profane songs and provided an introduction and door-opener to the genre. The next record was Farewell Cracow (1992), featuring songs by Mordechai Gebirtig about daily life in Kazimierz, Cracow’s Jewish quarter, just before the Holocaust.
Her international breakthrough, in cooperation with dramatist Ellen Foyn Bruun, came with Voices from Theresienstadt (1995) – in Norwegian, English and German (LtN 3/97). The play is a monodrama that takes place in the Nazis’ infamous “paradise” camp Terezin in the Czech Republic, 60 km north of Prague, which was intended to give the impression of a “normal” village with a lively cultural life. The town was built for 7000 prisoners but actually housed 50,000. The lyrics were written by Ilse Weber, a teacher who did not survive the camp, and the melodies were either re-created or found after many years of research. Bente Kahan portrays five women between the ages of 19 and 70 unsentimentally and with a great deal of humour (!) and warmth.
This year’s production and future record, called Home, reflects the European culture and history of the Jewish people from 13th century Spain, through Europe to present-day Norway. This is Bente Kahan’s own family history, although it does not become too personal. In stories and songs, we meet relatives, friends and scholars from different countries with different backgrounds, languages and ideologies, and Kahan brings them all alive with songs in eleven languages. The music is played by Sweden’s leading klezmer ensemble, Sabbath Hela Veckan (Sabbath All Week), which comprises six musicians from Sweden, Finland and the USA.
Between these productions, Bente Kahan had taken a number of concerts on tour, including Songs from her Jewish Soul (1996) and Wir wollen wachen die Nacht (1997), commissioned by the Berliner Festwoche, and she has worked and recorded concerts with German Jowel Klezmorim in Dresden in 1996 and the acclaimed Dutch group Di Gojim in 1997.
Bente Kahan is a cultural ice-breaker who says she has come home to her roots, where she has hung her hat – and her heart.