Yiddish Tango: A Musical Genre?

By Czackis, Lloica | European Judaism, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Yiddish Tango: A Musical Genre?


Czackis, Lloica, European Judaism


Abstract

The tango was born just before the turn of the twentieth century in Buenos Aires as the resulting blend of the cultures of Italian, Spanish, French and Eastern European Jewish immigrants and Afro-Argentine rhythms. In the 1910s the tango took Western Europe by storm, soon reaching Eastern Europe. Ballrooms and cabarets featured this Latin American import; composers, Jews amongst them, started to write new tangos. Inevitably, during the Holocaust tango became part of the life of ghettos and concentration camps, where it, now in Yiddish, was once again adopted as a vehicle to express the experience of inmates and their hopes for freedom. Not only did the Nazis allow this music, they forced Lagerkapellen, the camp orchestras, to play the Tango of Death to accompany prisoners as they were marched to the gas chambers. In different and happier circumstances, Jewish musicians living in Buenos Aires and New York--many of whom were emigres--wrote Yiddish tangos for the Yiddish theatre, musicals and Jewish revues. The mixed nature of tango probably explains why it has been continuously embraced and transformed during its extraordinary voyage around the world. Yiddish tangos are only an episode in this chronicle, an example of the Jews' tendency to adapt to the ethos of their adoptive countries and also, more generally, the mutual acceptance and fruitful interaction between peoples.

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People are often surprised when hearing the words Yiddish and tango brought together. Many think this is an invention conceived in the boom in recent years of world music fusions. Others imagine that these are well-known Argentine tangos translated into Yiddish by imaginative tango fans. And most are ready to listen to this music with the same curiosity as they would try a new soup recipe or an exotic perfume. But the Yiddish tango becomes only natural if one understands the circumstances in which it appeared. And it is this very recollection of its itinerary which makes it a fascinating and a unique phenomenon.

The relationship between the tango and Jews has been approached principally by Julio Nudler, (1) and by Jose Judkovski, (2) in Argentina. Also by Robert Rothstein, in the USA, and Jerzy Placzkiewicz, in Poland, with regard to Jewish composers present in the Polish tango. But this is the only study dedicated exclusively to the Yiddish tango.

In the last decade Yiddish tangos have regained some popularity and they have been often regarded by journalists and even by musicians as a genre. This paper discusses whether this label can correctly be applied to the Yiddish tango. But first let us retrace the history of this music. The beginning of the story brings us back to Buenos Aires between the 1880s and 1920s, a groundbreaking period which changed the Argentine capital forever, along with its urban culture. Two important events took place simultaneously: the emergence of the tango and of the second largest Jewish community in the world.

The roots of tango are still debated, but it is generally accepted that this music originated in both shores of the Rio de La Plata at the 1880s from existing Latin American dances. But this music would not have naturally evolved into a genre so profound, rich and destined to longevity without the particular history of the city which engendered it: Buenos Aires.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Argentina was the second destination of European emigration after the United States and before Canada, Australia and Brazil. Driven by a policy summarised by Juan Bautista Alberdi as 'gobernar es poblar' ('to govern is to populate'), President Nicolas Avellaneda (1874-1880) issued the Law of immigration and colonisation, which his successor, Julio A. Roca (1880-1886) put later into practise. Most of the Argentine native population had been massacred in the 1879 'conquest of the desert', promoted by Roca, who was then the War Minister.

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