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Yiddish Tango Reflects Jewish Life in Argentina

Jewish Life in Argentina Reflected in Yiddish Tangoi
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August 25, 2014 2:58 PM
Jewish people from across Europe and Russia have been immigrating to Argentina for hundreds of years. They brought with them dance music that were eventually mixed with Argentine tango. The result is Yiddish tango -- a fusion of melodies and cultural experiences that is still evolving today. Elizabeth Lee reports from the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where one band is bringing Yiddish tango to an American audience.
Elizabeth Lee

For most people, tango evokes a passionate dance form.  

For Argentine-born Gustavo Bulgach, tango is music with an attitude.  

“Tango means the blues. Tango is not just tango - it means - it’s an attitude that you want to express," he said. "In every language, in Yiddish, in Spanish - in whatever language - Tango represents that kind of attitude of losing or having your heart broken by life.”

Jewish people from across Europe and Russia have been immigrating to Argentina for hundreds of years. They brought with them dance music that was eventually mixed with Argentine tango.  

Fusion of melodies, culture

The result is Yiddish tango -- a fusion of melodies and cultural experiences that is still evolving today.  

Bulgach is the band leader of the Yiddish Tango Club, a group that fuses a form of Jewish dance music known as "klezmer" with Argentine tango.  

“Tango is not only Argentinian. It’s a loop from Europe also. It’s like something dramatic, and it’s the count…maybe one, two, three,” says vocalist Divina Gloria.

The band pays tribute to the music of the Jewish immigrants in Argentina.  Bulgach is Jewish, and his family emigrated to Argentina from Russia.  Jewish vocalist Divina Gloria’s family came from Poland.  Yiddish tango evokes memories of her own childhood in Argentina.

 “It’s makes me come to my early years, and reminds me of my family  It’s emotional but it makes me very happy,” Gloria said.

Tango music developed in the slums of Buenos Aires.  Some scholars believe tango has African origins. Others say tango music is a fusion of the various sounds of the European immigrants.  Jews, like other old-world immigrants to Argentina brought their own music with them to the new world.

“Tango is by the history of music not an Argentine rhythm.  Tango comes from Russia, from Poland, from Germany.  It was and still is a dance beat," Bulgach said. "In the beginning, they brought it with them and they fused that with what the locals knew at a very early stage.”

Yiddish tango still evolving

The result is Yiddish tango.

“The Yiddish tango evolved in a way that, in the beginning, it was just in Yiddish, and later on they mix with some Spanish words," Bulgach said.

And it is still evolving, thanks to technology.  Seven musicians can sound like 20 on stage.

Many in the audience are Jewish, and some of the music is familiar to them.  For others who are not Jewish, they come for the dancing.

“I was interested in tango dancing. I danced tango and I like klezmer music, so it’s a combination of both," said one woman at a recent concert.

Bulgach says while elements of  Yiddish tango will continue stay true to its roots - much as its Argentine counterpart has - it will also evolve as musicians experiment and incorporate other cultures into this old art form.

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