THE ARGENTINIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY'S ROLE IN THE DEVELOPMENT AND WORLDWIDE POPULARIZATION OF THE TANGO,
LECTURE BY JOAN EPSTEIN (PROFESSOR OF MUSIC, ECKERD COLLEGE, ST. PETERSBURG, FL), JUNE 12, 2016
Below is the text record of her presentation:
Before we get into the fascinating and important history of the Yiddish tango, our topic for today, I want to take a couple of minutes to establish what tango actually is. Is it a dance? Is it an instrumental music genre? Is it a song type? Well, yes, yes and yes, but we need to know more to move ahead.
Let’s first take a look at the dance itself. Our first clip demonstrates the basic steps of tango and the most basic interactions of dancing partners. Pay close attention to the bent knees, the slide that ends each phrase and the dynamic interplay between the dancers.
In the next clip, we’ll see the version of tango performed today by professionals on the stages and streets of Buenos Aires. You’ll see that the basic pattern is still there, but that every gesture is grander, more erotic, and more interdependent.
Let’s focus now on the instrumental music behind the dance. Try to pin down what makes this tango and not some other kind of dance music. Let’s sing the first phrase. What happens in the music at the moment dancers slide, or even lunge or kick? What else besides this break in the rhythm characterizes the music? How about the minor key? The playful, half-crying, half-laughing melodic gestures that are especially visible in the bandoneón part?
Nearly all traditional tango dance tunes where either composed with words or had lyrics added soon afterward, so the answer to this question is indeed yes. Let’s take a quick look at the lyrics to the tune we’ve heard twice already, “La Cumparsita,” sung by the incomparable Carlos Gardel. Follow the English translation as he sings. I’m sure you noticed Gardel’s highly expressive singing style that both dramatizes the desperate sadness of the lyrics and demonstrates a kind of resilience, or defiance, in response to that sadness. You might have noticed a similar tension between the square verse structure and strict four-beat phrases, the song’s familiar European form, and Gardel’s free, emotion-charged vocal style. Welcome to the world of tango which is based on such tensions and paradoxes.
English translation of the lyrics to “La Cumparsita”
If you knew, that still deep in my soul
that I had for you...
Who knows if you could know
that I have never forgotten you;
Going back into your past,
you will remember me...
My friends no longer come
not even to visit me;
Nobody wants to console me
in my affliction...
Since the day that you left,
I feel anguish in my chest.
Say, woman, what have you done
with my poor heart?
However, I always remember you
with the saintly affection
that I had for you.
And you are everywhere,
a piece of my life.
And those eyes that were my joy,
I look for them everywhere
and I can't find them.
To the abandoned pad,
not even the morning sun
peeks through the window
like when you were here.
And that friendly puppy
who because of your absence did not eat,
when it saw me all alone, the other day,
it also left me.
So how is it that tango developed in Argentina, not in New York or Havana? What cultural influences are interacting here? And what do Jews have to do with tango’s origins and development? To address the last question first, I must point out that
Jews, at first mostly Sephardim, began settling in Argentina in the early 16th century. Before Argentina’s independence from Spain in 1813, these immigrants were mainly Bnei Anusim, secret Jews, fleeing the Inquisition. (Click here for detailed discussion on the Anusim in Latin American countries) Some openly Jewish settlers came during the mid 19th century, but as in the U.S., the major influx came between 1880 and 1940 when large numbers of Jews, by now mostly Eastern European Ashkenazim, fled first pogroms, then the Russian Revolution, and then Hitler, swelling Argentina’s Jewish population to 150,000 by 1920 and to 310,000 by 1960. Even with substantial emigration to Israel, the U.S. and Europe from the ‘50s on, Argentina’s Jewish community is the seventh largest in the world
Outline of Jewish Immigration to and Emigration from Argentina
6th – 18th Century: Bnei Anusim, secret Sephardic Jews, settled in Argentina under the Inquisition. Many assimilate.
1813: Argentina declares independence from Spain & end of Inquisition. Jewish immigration from Central and Eastern Europe begins.
1860: First Jewish wedding in Buenos Aires; first congregation founded soon afterward.
1880s: Pogroms in Eastern Europe bring in thousands of Jews barred from entering North America.
1889: 100,00 Jews settle the rural Pampas with support of Baron Maurice de Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association.
1906-1912: 13,000 per year Jews leave Eastern Europe, Morocco & Ottoman Empire for urban Argentina.
1920: 150,000 Jews live in Argentina, nearly all the newest arrivals in Buenos Aires.
1930s: Continued immigration to Buenos Aires & Rosario from countryside and Europe as the Holocaust unfolds.
1946-55: Some Jews leave for Israel and North America under Peron. Nonetheless, 310,000 Jews live in Argentina in 1960.
1976-83: Terrible period of “the disappeared” under a military regime causes more Jews to leave.
1992 & 1994: Bombings of Israeli Embassy & AMIA Community Center caused further emigration.r>
2015: Still considerable anti-semitism in Argentina, yet 150,000 Jews remain; 7th largest Jewish community in the world.
In terms of the tango’s origins – both the dance and the music type -- developed between 1880 and 1930 in the poor immigrant neighborhoods of Montevideo, Uruguay and Buenos Aires, Argentina, port cities on either side of the Ria Plata. Initially, the tango was danced and sung in brothels and bars, then in crude theaters in the context of variety shows and on the streets as played by organ grinders and bandoneónists, , and then eventually in nicer clubs and theaters -- at each stage helping new immigrants to cope with poverty, loneliness and cultural displacement while also helping them adjust to modern social mores. Perhaps the most unsettling, and exciting, of these new conventions was meeting potential mates without the aid or supervision of parents and matchmakers.
The influences on evolving tango were many. The first of these was African-derived candombé brought to South America by slaves from the Congo. Candombé is characterized by a cyclic rhythm in four beats with intricate subdivisions and asymmetric accents. It is paired with energetic but fluid dancing with bent knees and even deeper dips in response to the off-kilter accents. Sound familiar? Luckily for us, Candombé is still performed today in the part of South America where tango was born as we can see and hear it in these video clips.
The Traditional Form on the Streets of Buenos Aires
A Europeanized Version in a Vintage Film
Yet another influence on tango: the strophic folk dances and folk songs from Italy, Poland, Russia and France brought in by 19th century immigrants. By strophic, I mean that the music has phrases of equal lengths, usually four or eight beats, and verses or choruses that are equally square, usually four or eight lines long. One strophic dance similar to square dancing, the contradanza, was especially important to the formation of tango, for it was basis for the Cuban habañera. Watch a little bit of habañera as a dance to see that it has an off-beat dip and slide like tango.
The habañera is the symmetrical European contradanza infused with a so-called clave rhythm.
Note similarity between Afro Cuban clave beat and Arabic maqsuom rhythm:
Focus on 2 – 3 pattern
This rhythm that goes bump bump bump might derive from the sort of syncopation we heard in Candombé that is also found in Afro-Cuban drumming -- or it might be Mideastern in origin. After all, southern Spain was Moorish right up till the year that the Inquisition kicked in and Columbus sailed west. Spanish music till today reflects both intricate Mideastern rhythms and the minor scale used by Arabs and Jews alike in Iberia. Think intricate flamenco music. To illustrate what I’m talking about, here’s the maqsuum rhythm you might associate with belly dancing that may have found its way into both habañera and tango.
Focus on beginning of clip
As a song form, you probably know the habañera from Bizet’s opera Carmen and perhaps you’ve also heard one called “La Paloma.” As a song type, you probably know the habañera from Bizet’s opera Carmen and perhaps you’ve also heard one called “La Paloma.” Now, listen to Placido Domingo sing a little of “La Paloma” to hear how the song is essentially square and European but has some swagger due to the maqsuum rhythm played on claves.
Complex European couples dances such as the waltz were another influence since contradances and the like did not involve close physical contact. Clearly tango does! Very importantly for our topic today, Jewish klezmer music, with its emphasis on minor modes, rubato phrasing and vocal “kvetching,” had a huge influence on the tango Here’s Argentinian-born klezmer great Giora Feidman to remind you of the sound of this musical genre and give you something to listen for in tango.
These various influences accrued over time as follows: Early tango criollo evolved from candombé mixed with strophic Mestizo-Creole gaucho songs that had found their way to the coast. This tango forebear evolved into even an more hybrid and Europeanized couples dance in the urban slums of Argentina and Uruguay by the 1890s called milonga, then into a style known as canyengue by 1900. By 1910, tango had developed into a suave salon style, but not until “bad boys” from good Buenos Aires families visited Paris where they promoted their favorite dance from home. Paris dance bands accommodated their Argentine patrons’ requests for tangos, then began recording the new repertoire. These early recordings played a huge role in disseminating tango music beyond Paris to Berlin, London and New York, where local dance bands, theatrical pit orchestras and singers imitated and modified what they heard, further spurring an international craze that was fully in place by 1913. After World War I, Argentinian orquestas tipicas ("typical orchestras") travelled to these cities, further diversifying the tango form abroad while reaffirming its connection with ever-evolving Argentine tango.
Since “dance musician” was one of the few occupations open to Eastern European Jews, many of Argentina’s new Jewish immigrants joined tango orchestras, and once they entered that world, they generated new songs, formed their own orchestras, even managed brothels and eventually nice dance halls. The next generation was even better positioned to enter the cultural mainstream and prosper in the tango world at its peak, 1920 to 1950. This history is detailed in José Judovski’s book El Tango: Una Historia con Judios, now a documentary film.
In these accounts, one learns about Arturo Bernstein, the first bandoneón virtuoso, Luis Rubistein (1908-1954) who composed “Charlemos” (Let's Talk), “Cuatro palabras” (Four words),
“Tu perro pekinés” (Your Pekinese dog), “Inspiración” (inspiration),
“Ya sale el tren” (The train leaves), “Cadenas” (Chains), “Animal,”
“Nada más” (Nothing more), “Tarde gris” (Grey afternoon) - recorded with
Carlos Gardel - and “Marion" His younger brother Oscar Rubens (1914-1984), who composed "Mientras duerme la ciudad” and
"Es en vano llorar" (with Alberto Suárez Villanueva), "Los muñequitos”
(Francisco Pracanico), "Calla bandoneón" (Carlos Lazzari),
"Dejame en paz" (Américo Actis), "Corazón qué has hecho" (Antonio Ríos)
and "Domingo a la noche" (Juan José Guichandut). Abraham Moisés “Alberto” Soifer (1907-1977) a pianist and composer who partnered with famous tango musicians and formed his own orchestras. Violinist and composer Josef Nezow AKA José Nieso who debuted with Roberto Firpo, then founded his own orchestra. Bernardo Mendel Sucher AKA Manuel Sucher or Manola (1913-1971) a violinist and pianist who founded several of Buenos Aires’s top tango orchestras. The list goes on to include other great performers and promoters, such as Moisés Smolarchik Brenner AKA Ben Molar (b. 1915) responsible for December 11th’s designation as the National Day of Tango. Mordechai David “Max” Glücksmann (1875-1946) founder of Discos Glücksmann, which cornered the tango recording market in 1914 and held on. Glücksmann also owned movie theaters throughout South America that showed tango on screen. This trend was quickly exported, as you may know.
The point here is that the Argentine tango was developed by Jews and amongst Jews from its start and remains connected to Jewish culture to this day.
Most tango songs in Argentina, even those composed by Jews, had Spanish texts. By the ‘20s, however, Yiddish-text tango songs were being published and performed in Yiddish theaters in Buenos Aires and Rosario. (Slide 23) Even before WW I, many pre-existing Yiddish songs were delivered in New York Yiddish theaters “tango style,” just as popular songs had been “ragged,” that is, sung “ragtime style,” in the 1890s, and by the ‘20s, many New York Yiddish theater songs were composed as tangos. A perfect example is the song “Mazl,” composed for the Yiddish film Mamele, with music by Abraham Ellstein and words by Molly Picon.
Mazl du shaynst amol far yedn
Far yedn nor nit far mir
Mazl du brengst a yedn freydn
Far vos farzoymtu mayn tir
Akh vi es tut bang a yeder sho
Dos lebn fargeyt, un keyn hofenung iz altz nishto
Luck you shine on everyone
Everyone but me.
Luck, you bring them happiness
Why do you shun my doorway?
There’s pain in every luckless hour
Life passes without hope.
Here’s Picon singing some of it.
Another case is Zuni Maud’s little song “Di Grine Katshke” (“The Green Duck”). Presented on a New Traditions recording as a children’s ditty, this is really a self-deprecating, autobiographical song by Maud, an eccentric, highly creative Yiddish activist, poet, cartoonist, musician and puppeteer. Henry Sapoznik sings the first verse here backed up by a children’s chorus.
Geyt a grine katshke
Mit a royter noz;
Vil zi shmekn tabak –
Hot zi nit mit vos.
Grine katshke, royte noz,
Un ikh veys nit, un ikh veys nit,
Vos iz dos.
Geyt di grine katshke,
Geyt arum un kayt;
Vil zi brokn lokshn
Hot zi ni keyn tsayt…
Dreyt zikh um di katshke,
Dreyt zikh on a zin.
Vil zi geyn shpatsirn –
Hot zi nit vuhin…
Geyt di grine katshke,
Geyt arum un trakht;
Vil zi davnen minkhe –
Falt shoyn tsu di nakht.
There goes a green duck
With a red nose;
She wants a pinch of snuff,
But she has none.
Green duck, red nose,
What this is,
I don’t know.
There goes the green duck,
She walks about and chews,
She wants to make some noodles,
But she has no time.
The duck bustles about,
She bustles about without a thought.
She wants to take a stroll,
But has no place to go.
There goes the green duck.
She walks around and thinks.
She wants to say the evening prayers,
But it’s already getting dark.
One of the first Yiddish songs to be converted into a tango was the sad little number “Papirosen,” or “Cigarettes” (the cheap, hand-rolled type a street urchin might hawk). Yiddish words by Herman Yablokoff were added to a Bulgarian folk tune in the ‘20s for use in his play Papirosen. In Buenos Aires of the song’s era, papirosn was slang for prostitutes, perhaps explaining its rapid rise to popularity in tango’s home city. Modern Yiddish tango artist Zully Goldfarb’s delivery of the song recalls old-time Yiddish theater but with a nuevo tango accent.
A cold night, foggy, and darkness everywhere
A boy stands sadly and looks around.
Only a wall protects him from the rain;
He holds a basket in his hand
and his eyes beg everyone silently:
I don't have any strength left to walk the streets
Hungry and ragged, wet from the rain,
I shlep around from dawn.
Nobody gives me any earnings,
everyone laughs and makes fun of me.
This song has been given new Yiddish words more than once. One remarkable case was within a ‘30s Yiddish film, the Amerikaner Shadchen (American Matchmaker). As we see in the film’s key scene, a transformed tango version of “Papirosen” is used, as is the case in many tango songs, to address an emotionally complex issue. Alas, our shadchen has chosen his occupation of marriage broker because he is “musical” and cannot marry his female clients himself.
Also notable is the translation of the most famous tango song of all time, “La Cumparsita,” popularized by Carlos Gardel, into Yiddish by Argentinian Jewish singer José Derasner, in which he simply narrates the story in Yiddish over guitar.
Beginning in the ‘20s, tango caught on in less metropolitan areas of Europe as far east as Ukraine, but it was recordings, not traveling orquestas tipicas, that people heard at first. Dance bands and theater orchestras soon began adapting tango styles found on recordings to regional conventions and local languages including Russian, Polish, rustic German, Finnish and Yiddish. Examples:
A little more ardent and piano heavy is Jakub Kagan’s “Zlota pantera” (“The Golden Panther”) of 1929. This one is primarily in Polish but still pitched to a Jewish audience.
And then a tango version of the Yiddish classic “Main Yidishe Mame” rendered in Russian. The Kol Nidrei quotation at the start confirms this as Jewish music.
And finally, one of the best dance bands in Eastern Europe, cousins Arturo Gold’s and Jerzy Petersburski’s orchestra, playing “Pato” by Ramon Collazo in 1929.
Whether the overall feel of a tango song is despairing, erotic, warmly romantic, self-deprecating, ironic, nostalgic, or nonchalant, it is common for tango texts to express darkness with the slightest glimmer of light, especially Yiddish tangos. So it’s not surprising that the genre was adapted to the grim realities of life in the Nazi-imposed ghettos and ultimately, in the camps.
One early example is “Ich hab’ kein Heimatland” (“I no longer have a homeland”). It’s in German, recorded in Berlin in 1933.
I have no homeland
I have nothing in this world
I'm moving from country to country
And stay there where I please
I may not be happy
I know of no sunshine
Why am I so alone
On this earth?
Surely thousands of songs were generated by residents of the Nazi-imposed ghettos, some original, some old songs with new words. Forty-eight of them were collected and published in 1948 by survivor Shmerke Katsherginski. Others were collected from survivors by Chana Mlotek, writer for the Forvertz and folk song curator at YIVO, and by ethnomusicologist Gila Flam. Recently, this repertoire has been explored by other performer-scholars, including the late Adrienne Cooper and Chana Mlotek’s son Zalmen, director of New York’s Yiddish Folk Theater. This pair produced the remarkable CD Ghetto Tango: Wartime Yiddish Theater in 2000.
Here’s their rendition of “On a heym,” “Homeless,” a reworking of “Mazl.”
Homeless, no roof overhead,
We wandered through the night
Not knowing where we were headed
Another major researcher / performer of Yiddish tango is Lloica Czackis. Here’s some of her rendition of “Es iz geven a Zumertog” (“It Was a Summer’s Day”), written in the Vilna Ghetto by 12 year-old Rikle Glezer to the tune of “Papirosn.” Czackis’s 2005 recording Tangele: The Pulse of Yiddish Tango approaches the songs as nuevo tango while still connecting to their origins.
It was a summer’s day .
As always beautifully sunny.
And nature had within it
So much charm.
Birds were singing
Cheerfully hopping around,
As we were ordered into the ghetto.
Oh, imagine what became of us!
We understood all is lost.
Our pleas were of no help,
Asking for someone to rescue us;
We had deserted our home.
Tango might have been suppressed as “degenerate art” by the Nazis, but it was tolerated, even promoted, in the ghettos, especially at Yiddish theaters and restaurants with live music, to create a false sense of normalcy. This policy also kept musicians in shape to play in concentration camps once the ghettos were emptied. Camp orchestras entertained officers and led slave labor anthems. All too often, they were also forced to “welcome” new arrivals with marches and popular songs and in many cases, to play processionals toward the gas chambers and crematoria.
More often than not, these processionals were not marches but “totentanzen,” “death dances,” specifically tangos. A frequent choice, apparently, was Jerzy Petersburski’s tango “Ta ostatnia niedziela,” “This is Our Last Sunday.” Story has it that Artur Gold, once shipped out of Warsaw, was forced to lead a violin trio at the Treblinka death camp, playing his cousin’s tango during one such march to the gas chambers – while wearing a clown suit and a giant bow tie. It’s unknown whether anyone played this tango when it was his turn to make the fatal march.
How I see tango, Yiddish tango in particular, comparing, for example, with African American blues: Both affirm inescapable pain and frustration; both hint at a brighter future, or at least demonstrate dignity and resilience in the face of calamity; both do so through witty lyrics and a playful tension between a tight rhythmic structure and free melodic and timbral expression. One might draw similar parallels between tango and jazz, even tango and spirituals or gospel. Once we’ve ventured into religious ground, however, an important distinction emerges. While most strains of Judaism embrace the idea of an eternal soul, few broach the idea of an afterlife or that of eternal, heavenly salvation. Judaism focuses on doing good in the here and now, on repairing an imperfect world, on modeling righteous behavior in hopes that others will follow and thus that the Kingdom of God will be established for everyone, in the world of the living. Personally, I hear this outlook in all the Yiddish tangos I’ve shared today. Through both text and musical delivery, the ugly truth is confronted squarely, and with enough skill and invention so as to affirm the value of our mortal existence, of community; to espouse some measure of hope, no matter how bad things are.