Yiddish Tango

Yiddish Tango

Author: Xianya Qiu

When you start exploring Yiddish culture and art, you may soon find the term ‘Yiddish tango’. You might wonder how Yiddish, a language originating from central Europe and spoken by Jewish people, is related to tango, a popular form of music and dance in Latin America. This article will introduce you to Yiddish tango, which is a perfect fusion of music and different cultures.

History of the Jewish people in Argentina

The first Jews settled in  Argentina in the sixteenth centuries due to the expulsion from Spain. However, it took them centuries to become an openly participating part of the society.  It was not until the early 19th century that they established an organised Jewish community. And they gradually became an important presence in the Río de la Plata area due to the policies of the Roca government (1880-86) which attracted Jewish people.

Yiddish music and tango

Today, the Jewish population in Argentina is 80% Ashkenazi and a minority of Sephardi and Mizrahi. The Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants brought Klezmer, a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. They have further influenced the local music and dance culture. When tango’s popularity reached its highest in the 1930s, the Jewish community in Buenos Aires also enjoyed a vibrant cultural life, as there were three Yiddish newspapers and numerous cultural centres. Jewish violinists arriving from Poland, Russia and Romania played instruments to earn a living and also adapt to the local culture. While the Jewish and local Argentinian population were separated in most professions, there was  no distinction between them in music. This enriched both Jewish and Argentine music, which is incredible at a time of the rise of fascism.

Firstly Jewish writers created tango with Spanish lyrics, and later tango in Yiddish appeared inevitably. Between the 1930s and the 1960s Buenos Aires was one of the world capitals of Yiddish theatre, attracting the greatest international stars. It boosted Jewish culture and art in Argentina, including Yiddish tango. Jews were noteworthy as performers, authors, publishers and lyricists in the world of tango.

In the early years of the 20th century, dancers and orchestras from Buenos Aires travelled to Europe, and the first European tango craze took place in Paris, soon followed by London, Berlin, and other capitals. Some of the numerous musicians performing tango in pre-war Europe were Jews. At the same time European composers, some of whom were also Jews, started to write new tangos. For example, Paul Godwin won great success in Germany by composing different styles to please the market.

Yiddish Tango Photo

Yiddish tango and the Holocaust

By the time of the Second World War the tango was one of the most popular ballroom dances in Europe. In ghettos and concentration camps, therefore, Lloica Czackis found such music both as part of the enforced repertoire of the Lagernkapellen (concentration camp orchestras) and as a means of self-expression by Jewish inmates. Anthony Weiss suggests that the reason why tango was encouraged, may be due to the fact that it is less encouraging of rebellion in comparison to American jazz. Except tango songs in Yiddish, number of them were also in Hebrew, Russian, Polish, French, Rumanian, Hungarian and even German. These songs are a remarkable testament to the creative ability of people to demonstrate their endurance, ingenuity and resourcefulness under the most inhuman conditions. “Through all the songs, there flows the will to live, to preserve the dignity and the cherished traditional customs of learning and teaching”, said Lloica Czackis, a musician and researcher of Yiddish tango.

Yiddish tango today

Tango’s function as self-expression is still working today. “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.” said Gustavo Bulgach, Klezmer Juice band leader. In the Yiddish tango club in Argentina, you can see Jewish come for the familiar music genre. Besides, there are also people who are not Jewish who come to dance. Bulgach says while elements of Yiddish tango will continue to stay true to their roots – much as it has done so Argentina- it will also evolve, as musicians experiment and incorporate other cultures into this old art form.

We may use Lloica Czackis’s thought to conclude: ‘‘Yiddish tangos are only an episode of 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.’’

Further reading:

1.Czackis, Lloica. “Yiddish Tango: A Musical Genre?”. European Judaism 42.2 (2009): n. pag. Web.

2. Czackis, Lloica. “TANGELE: The history of Yiddish tango”, Jewish Quarterly (2003).

3. Lee, Elizabeth. “Yiddish Tango Reflects Jewish Life In Argentina”. VOA. N.p., 2014. Web. 7 June 2016.

4. Weiss, Anthony. “Yiddish Tango Is Irresistible Musical Hybrid”. The Forward. N.p., 2014. Web. 7 June 2016.