Few visitors to Buenos Aires are immune to the seduction of the tango. Both a dance and a style of music, tango is synonymous with the Argentinian capital, where extravagant tango-and-dinner shows are performed nearly every night of the week. The city is also bursting with tango instructors, tango graffiti and people doing the tango in the streets. December 11 is National Tango Day.
On my first visit to Buenos Aires, I took in two tango shows, had a private lesson (I was hopeless) and saw locals (porteños, as they call themselves) perfecting their moves in one of the city’s lovely old parks. My quirkiest souvenir was a Yiddish Tango Hits CD that I discovered in a store in the Oncé district (“Our Lower East Side,” said our friend, Salito Gutt, of Jewish Tours Argentina). Though I assumed Yiddish tango was unusual, the album was in fact the tip of the iceberg, as this music is deeply enmeshed in the narrative of the Jewish community.
Last March, over afternoon tea with Dr. Julio Ceitlin and his family, the talk turned to tango. We’d met Ceitlin through a physician friend back home, who calls him “the father of family medicine in Argentina.” In addition to studying medicine, Ceitlin played tango violin in his younger days. He generously shared a link to a film that explores the story of Buenos Aires’ Jews and the tango. Watching Tango, una Historia con Judios was a revelation.
Director Gabriel Pomeraniec’s documentary shows a city teaming with immigrants in the early part of the 20th century. Italians, Spanish, French, Africans and Jews all lived in the same poor neighbourhoods. In the film, historian José Judkovsksi describes the 1889 arrival of Argentina’s first Jews on board the Wesser, a ship carrying 824 Jews from the “eastern Russian motherland.”
Among many of the newcomers’ few possessions were musical instruments (such as violins, bandoneons or concertinas) and the songs that were sung in the old country, especially klezmer. In Buenos Aires, klezmer encountered something completely new – the tango – and a fusion of the two sounds soon emerged. Having fled pogroms, revolution and famine, Jews in South America connected with the tango’s subtle and sensual nature.
Newcomers became part of the developing culture in other ways, too. “The first women to smoke in public in Buenos Aires were Jewish girls from eastern Europe who’d worked in clubs, cabarets and brothels,” says Judkovski. They’d use the Yiddish word “papirosen” when asking for a cigarette, so “papirusa” became slang for “beautiful woman.” (Though some sources say the term has a raunchier meaning.)
Popular music reflected this “mixture of cultures and flavours,” says Ceitlin, who was interviewed in the film. In the 1930s, klezmer violinist Raúl Kaplún – a talented musician, composer and director – influenced the evolution of the tango. Ceitlin praises Kaplún’s sense of “rhythm, melody and technical capacity.” Kaplún in turn influenced many others, including the four Rubenstein brothers. Lewis Rubenstein wrote the lyrics for the last tango recorded by Carlos Gardel, who’s known as the king of Argentinian tango.
Among the best of the Jewish tango musicians was violinist Simon (Tito Simon) Bajour. One commentator remembers Tito being hired by a major bandleader to play a particularly difficult number. He arrived just minutes before the show. “I can’t believe this Russian played it as easily as drinking a glass of water,” said the bandleader afterward.
Ceitlin was born in Vilnius to a Lithuanian mother and a father fleeing the Russian Revolution. In 1924, the family emigrated to Buenos Aires, where Ceitlin was given his first violin at age 10. (At home, however, he heard only classical music.) A student of both music and medicine, he later found work in the bohemian world of tango bands. Playing late into the night, he often missed classes, and only when a friend informed him that he’d registered him for his exams did Ceitlin take them and pass.
With a day job performing on radio, he was able devote himself to his studies and pursue his medical career. Still, the popular music of his city remains close to his heart – and his mind. Eight years ago, he delivered a presentation on medicine and tango to interdisciplinary audiences in five world capitals.
Tango has long resonated not only in Buenos Aires, but the world over, travelling back to Europe and even Asia. Once, when visiting Bangkok, I was surprised to see a Thai couple practising their tango moves in a park, while music blasted from a boombox. And in Pomeraniec’s film, a young Israeli musician speaks of hearing his mother’s tango record and immediately being smitten.
I recently spoke on the phone with porteño Gustavo Bulgach from his Los Angeles home. Learning to play the flute and clarinet at age 15, Gustavo was initially inspired by the Yiddish music of his Kiev-born grandfather. Gustavo and his band Klezmer Juice (it’s a pun) were featured in the hit movie, The Wedding Crashers.
His fourth album, The Yiddish Tango Club, pays homage to his childhood and the music he remembers as being “so powerful, in terms of melody and harmony.” Discovering his grandfather’s music was “like hearing The Beatles,” he says. Once, after playing at a radio station in L.A., he was told that his music has “one leg in tradition and one leg in the now.” That suits him just fine.
Listening to the many Argentines who are descended from Jewish immigrants, the common threads seem to be family, heritage and diversity. In Pomeraniec’s film, we hear the National Orchestra Tango perform in Buenos Aires’ magnificent Teatro Colón, a smaller group plays in the city’s historic synagogue and a Jewish family plays exuberantly together in their Buenos Aires home, where, afterward, platters of potato knishes are served. In Argentina, it’s all about connecting present, past and future, set to music.
If You Go: Jewish Tours Argentina, http://jewish-tours.com.ar/ offers excellent tours, including a tango option in the Villa Crespo district; our favourite Buenos Aires apartment/hotel, Poetry Building, in the Recoleta neighbourhood, will find both shows and tango lessons for guests; Gabriel Pomeraniec’s film, the one that Dr. Julio Ceitlin is featured in, can be viewed below: