On November 1, Vancouver singer/songwriter/accordionist/novelist/political activist Geoff Berner returns with new left-wing Jewish music for our perilous times. Grand Hotel Cosmopolis is the first new klezmer-punk album from Berner since 2015’s We Are Going To Bremen To Be Musicians. Released on Coax Records in Canada and worldwide via Coax Europa (an imprint for Coax on artist run record label GiveUsYourGOLD in Berlin), a new label set up as a european bridgehead for Coax artists.
The album’s first single, “What Kind Of Bear Am I?”, was originally written for Gravediggers of Uzda, an experimental musical theatre production from director Jenny Romaine at the KlezKanada Laurentian Retreat. “Jenny told me we needed a bear song, for the bears working in the tavern scene, and handed me an academic paper by Robert Adler Peckerar,” says Berner.
“I am told that when the Polish Empire ran Belarus a long time ago, there were many restrictions for Jews and Roma people, but there was a special license granted to them alone. They were the only ones allowed to train and keep dancing bears. In the town of Smorgon, Belarus, there was a Bear Academy. They say that the whole town was devoted to the cruel work of the training of dancing bears. They say that when you arrived at Smorgon Station, a bear porter would take your luggage for you. That bears cleaned the streets with brooms. That bears served also in the hotel. All through the town.
Rob‘s piece talks about how dancing bears are symbols of the way Christians thought about Jews and Roma in a way similar to the way they thought about dancing bears—as creatures somewhere between animal and human..”
The video, by Jordan Lloyd Watkins, is the film noiresque journey of a bear through the less-polished spaces of Vancouver. “And as the lyrics go,” says Berner, “‘I pour the drinks, I hear the music, and I try not to dance, but sometimes I just can’t help myself no matter how I try, and you ask me, what kind of bear am I?’.”