New Discovery: Yiddish Tango

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by Jan Seides
Tuesday 2nd September, 2014, 10:50pm

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 10.47.21 PMThose who know me are aware that I have a show of Yiddish songs I learned growing up, which of course, I love and perform when and wherever I can. I stumbled across the Yiddish tango quite by accident, and wanted to share my delight.

Ultimately, you could argue that this is either Yiddish music being played with a tango beat, or else tangos being played by klezmer instruments. And you’d be more-or-less right. But it’s actually much more than that, and has a long and intricate history, some of it ugly, some shining.

We can start with the tango developing out of other dance forms in Buenos Aires in the early 1900s. Most of this was occurring at the brothels and such on the waterfront, attended by the less savory portion of the population. Originally, the dance was designed to portray a prostitute and her pimp, and so was not danced in polite company. But as time went on, the music became less raucous, and though the dance remained more or less the same, it became more acceptable as a result. This video was apparently made at a tango contest in the 1900, and the tango had already gained enough popularity to be competitive.

Just so you know, I make no claims upon the videos that follow, or the music in them.

TANGO (Old film from 1900)

I mostly included this next video because, even though it’s a computer simulation, it shows the setting most of the participants would be in for an evening of tango.

TANGO – Computer simulation of dance with 1920s tango

Over the years, the tango music began to acquire lyrics, resulting in singers achieving stardom and increasing the popularity of the music.

At the same time as this was developing, there was a heavy influx of immigrants from mid and eastern-Europe. A large proportion of the newcomers were Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Slavic Jews, who were seeking escape from the pogroms and other persecutions in the area.  Part of that population ended up in the United States, but many went to South America, and particularly to Argentina, which was calling for laborers at the time (large areas of land to be developed now that the native population had been slaughtered). The immigrants gravitated to the dancing and good times as a way of easing their distress at being uprooted and displaced into a new and foreign setting.

So, into this musical environment came the influx of Jews from Eastern Europe, invited by the Argentinian government to work the land.  Between 1910 and 1940, 250,000 Jews entered Argentina, making Buenos Aires the largest Jewish community after New York. In much the same way as the Jewish cultural heritage made its way into the general culture in New York, so it also did in Buenos Aires. Jewish musicians began to become prominent in the world of tango as performers, composers and lyricists.

And as the Yiddish Theater, which thrived in New York and Buenos Aires, continued on into the 30s and 40s, songwriters from the theater began to write tangos, both for theater pieces and as stand-alone songs, suitable for dancing. One of the most popular players from Yiddish theater was Molly Picon, who was Yenta in the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof. She  wrote the lyrics for a lovely song called Oygn, set to a tango beat (also known as “milonga” with accents as follows 1-2-3-4-56-78)

Yiddish Tango – Friling

JACOB SANDLER Git mir ob main hartz tzurik

The tango became more and more popular, and it made its way back to Europe, in the tracks of American blues and Jazz (and later, rock and roll.) Soon you could find Yiddish-speaking musicians writing tangos for their own performances, especially in Eastern Europe, where there was still a strong Yiddish culture.

Old Polish tango in Polish and Hebrew: Graj skrzypku, graj!

By the time of World War II, Tango was the rage in Europe, in city and ghetto. But as the Nazis came to power, and began absorbing their neighbors, life became untenable for the Jewish population in general. Those musicians who did not escape, and ended up in the concentration camps, found themselves enlisted in Lagernkapellen orchestras by the Nazis.  They were required to play tango, in preference to jazz. This was because the Nazis saw jazz as more likely, and tango as less likely to inspire rebellion. And they were required to play tangos,  in particular the Tango of Death, as accompaniment to mass executions.

Jewish Music from Holocaust – Yiddish Tango

An example of El Tango de la Muerte:

El Tango de la Muerte

In the U.S., the Yiddish Theater continued to thrive, and tango was often the vehicle for the songs.  The Barry Sisters recorded this one:

Ikh hob dikh tsi fil lib

And today, in Buenos Aires, Yiddish tango is alive and well, in the form of the Yiddish Tango Club, founded by Gustavo Bulgach. Have a listen. You won’t be sorry:

Librescu Tango – Gustavo Bulgach KLEZMER JUICE

And if you’d like to hear a sampling of my Yiddish show, go here:

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Category: Gigs, Music, Songwriting, This ‘n’ That, Uncategorized

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