Preserving Yiddish song and culture: an interview with German artist extraordinaire, Karsten Troyke

Karsten Troyke, born Karsten Bertolt Sellhorn in East-Berlin, GDR, is a singer, actor, and speaker. He is widely regarded as Europe’s best interpreter of Yiddish song. His sound is distinctive among singers: if you watch his videos on YouTube, you’ll catch him chuckling at the reaction to his shockingly husky voice. Watch him and listen to him HERE. He clearly knows that audiences don’t know if it’s a put-on – meant to be funny – or outrageously sexy.

Both sides of his parents were Communists, his mother’s non-Jewish family since 1914. His father came from the Jewish-German family Nathan in Hamburg, assimilated and bought “Aryan papers” after 1933: that protected a part of the family from persecution.

Performing on stage since 1982, Troyke studied singing, as well as drama and speaking during the 80’s. His father, a manager for jazz musicians, had started performing a “Jewish evening” in the 1960’s: he presented Yiddish literature translated to German and played records of Yiddish songs. Later, Troyke joined this performance, replacing the records with himself singing Yiddish folk songs.

After the Berlin Wall fell, he worked in a Berlin theatre doing musicals in Yiddish. Troyke participated in radio plays, worked as a voice-over and dubbing artist, recorded several German song albums, as well as Yiddish albums.

Troyke considers that in the differences between Jewish and non-Jewish reception of Jewish music in Germany, he forged his own path without religion, without feelings of guilt, focused on Jewish culture.

HERE is his website in English.

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This interview was conducted by email.

How old were you when you first started showing musical promise? What did your parents do about it?

My parents brought me to all that music. I was already the singer in front at the kindergarten choir.

You and I were both born on August 14. In the US, they say that Leos are born to be “hams”, meaning they love the spotlight. Do you find that to be true?

Possibly…. Yes, it is like this.

Your father managed jazz musicians. My father managed opera musicians before I was born, yet it was my mother who was mostly the “stage parent”. Who was more aggressive about your musical studies and appearances?

None of them, they were divorced, both they loved music, partly the same kind of.  But my father showed and introduced me to all these jazz musicians, who had an unreachable quality to me. My mom loved simple folk songs more, she brought me to a piano teacher, which was a little boring to me.

Who did you study with and what instruments?

Later the guitar, just to back-up my singing and I always thought, someone will discover me without regular studies, but it didn‘t happen.

Have you studied and performed music of other genres?

I was always in touch with every kind of popular music, from folk to jazz and pop, classical music not so much…

Your mother isn’t Jewish. Were you raised as a Jew?

No. Just the family stories.

Do you consider yourself Jewish?

As a part of Jewish culture, yes. In a religious way, no. But I learned to love this tradition.

How did Jewish life differ from before to after the Berlin Wall fell?

Most of the very small group of East German Jews came from a communist family at the same time. People of my age started to think about it, more or less in the 1980‘s. After the wall fell, it became the regular Jewish community life, and the Russian Jews came.

There’s a feeling in the US of “Why do they (the Jews) stay there (Germany)? Now that they can leave, why don’t they leave?” Have you thought about emigrating?

I thought about emigrating, but actually, Germany is a good place to be at the moment. And, I have roots here. I love Israel, but I see during my annual concerts there, that it is might be too expensive for me.

Has the Jewish dynamic changed since Germany allowed mass migration of refugees from Syria and Africa?

Yes, but it appears to be the same in all the Western world. I love the international feeling of Berlin where I live, and I see the hatred of Muslim communities against Jews too. Well . . . what shall I say, I just watch.

You are very open about Jewish culture. Have you ever experienced antisemitism?

Some yellow Magen David at my mailbox, an angry Palestinian, lots of conspiracy ideas were explained to me how Jews run the world, and we had to pay security from our income at the concerts, especially in France.

When I was in Leipzig, I saw that the shul met in a secret location. Is that common in Germany still?

Yes, it is so, and if not in a secret place, then with lot of security men.

Have you spent time in Austria? Do they seem to be more openly antisemitic? I have thought that it’s because Germany wanted to be more part of international trade after the war and Austria is poorer, so they didn’t have to make the same changes, to openly show the world they are not still antisemitic. What are your thoughts?

Actually, Yiddish culture appeared to be more “normal” and not seen as so exotic in Austria. The audience was extremely kind. But I mostly had contact with Jews in Austria, so I cannot really say…

I’ve seen your Facebook posts. Do you consider yourself politically aware?

I would say politically interested, and always afraid that the democratic basics will get lost.

You’ve never played Klezmer music? Have you had the opportunity?

Klezmer is a Yiddish word and it means: musician. When I play with Trio Scho & clarinetist Jan Hermerschmidt, people say, it is klezmer.

Do you teach students in Germany?

Sometimes, also in London, Paris and Stockholm. I even did it in Minnesota.

You had a mentor for Yiddish language and songs? Didn’t your father speak it? So, you learned a Polish form of Yiddish. How long had your father’s side of the family been in Germany?

My father’s part of the family is Nathan from Hamburg. Many generations of Jewish citizens probably came from Portugal centuries ago. He didn’t speak Yiddish, but in the 1950’s, when he started to bring Jewish culture to the stage, he thought, Yiddish would be the more obvious Jewish culture. He felt guilty by surviving with a lie, his father bought “Aryan” papers to get rid of the Nathan name. The old records my father had were all in the old dialect of now called Polish Yiddish. Later, when I was on stage, a woman came who taught me a lot of songs, that have been forgotten: Sara Bialas-Tenenberg, born in 1927 Stefania Sliwka in Czestochowa, Poland. With her and her sons I can speak Yiddish even today. And that’s how it affects my singing, too.

How did your father and mother talk about the war to you? How old were you when you first learned about the Holocaust? How did that make you feel about yourself, about Jews?

I heard it from my early childhood on, even more of my mother’s family. Communists had been beaten hard already in 1933. In Berlin, it was called “Koepenicker Blutwoche”. I leaned as a child that the Nazis killed and destroyed everything. And we didn’t call it the Holocaust, it was just “the dark time”, where we lost my mother’s grandpa and the complete family background of my father’s.

In the US, we have antisemitism, too. When I was a girl, a boy in my class drew swastikas on my school books for years, but he was able to become a highly esteemed law professor. You have laws in Germany against people doing that, don’t you?

Yes, we have, and we had in in East Germany too. Swastikas are simply forbidden, like denying the facts of the Holocaust. I remember that my schoolmates used swastikas as “opposition” against the Communist system. That, I found dangerous.

How often are you on the road?

Every week.

Do you ever travel with security for your performances?

No. (We don’t look like people would think a Jew would look.) And who would pay for that?

Describe your life as a musician in Germany. In the USA, unless the musician is pretty famous, they still have to have a “day job”. Or, if they are young, they live and travel in a van (caravan). When I studied at a conservatory, I saw the finest musicians in the world sharing an apartment, 4 or 5 of them, only eating Ramen. That’s when I decided to become a lawyer.

Wow! Yes, if I don’t reach the border to be a “celebrity”, my life is not quite like wealthy people have. But it’s okay, I don’t share my rooms. And I have the luck, that people call me to perform, I don’t ask for (gigs). People give me some of the love back…

Are you trained in any other occupation?

Gardener.

Do you have a manager? How do you decide what gigs to play?

No manager. As described above.

Are you actively trying to perform at certain venues? Where would you like to play that you have not?

I always love to enter new and bigger rooms, but it’s not an aim that I work on. I’d love to give a concert at Olympia Paris or Carnegie Hall e.g., but the Yiddish culture doesn’t seem to have these big circles anymore, to get these. Maybe one day, when I have my own songs/hits, and in English language. Who knows?

Are you sponsored by any products? Do you try to get sponsorships? In the US, the musicians try to get sponsorships from local businesses, such as snack manufacturers, or from things they need, like guitar strings.

No, I’m not. We don’t have that tradition here. But I wouldn’t object to it.

How many guitars do you have? What models are they? What kind of guitar would you like to get in the future? Where do you personally buy yours?

I have 3 guitars, and a takamine with metal strings I do not play. I lent it to a friend. The others are simple nylon string guitars made in Germany, my beloved is a Spanish one copied by Chinese luthiers. I usually buy at a shop in Berlin, Goethestrasse.

What kind of piano do you have in your house?

An electric one, which does work nice, you can hear it on my CDs: a better one from the company techs.

What music do you listen to, when you’re not working?

Same as I work on. And everything else. Russian Roma Music (Gypsy), the Lebanese singer Fairouz, Billie Holiday, Esther Ofarim – these are some of my special beloved…

What is a splurge for you, something special you get to treat yourself?

Looking for vinyl treasures.

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