Jewish Journal


September 27, 2007

Flamenco and tango melodies strike Jewish chords


Flamenco dancer Cihtli Ocampo. Photo by Elazar Harel

Flamenco dancer Cihtli Ocampo. Photo by Elazar Harel

Ethan Margolis, co-founder of Arte y Pureza (Art and Purity), a Seville, Spain-based flamenco troupe, says three influences stand out as soon as you begin reading about flamenco: Sephardic, Arabic and Indian. Margolis, whose company will perform at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater on Friday, Sept. 28, attributes the influences to the peregrinations of the Romani people, some of whom migrated from the Indian subcontinent, across northern Africa through Arabic countries and into southern Spain before the Spanish Inquisition.

While Margolis said the "complicated rhythms" of flamenco come from India and some of the melodies have an Arabic quality, the Sephardic component can be heard in the "Jewish chants and laments," as well as the "Phrygian mode" and "chromatic scales," which, according to Margolis, have a "Middle-Easty sound to" them.

Margolis hails from a family of musicians, among them his father, a rock and blues pianist and songwriter, and his brother, a classical guitarist. Margolis was "following in his father's footsteps" as a rock musician and songwriter when he heard flamenco music for the first time about 11 years ago. At the time, Margolis was an electric guitarist and Spanish major at the University of Michigan, but after attending a live show by Paco de Lucia, viewed by many as the "most famous flamenco guitar player ever," Margolis switched his attention to flamenco.

The young Margolis moved to Spain, where he studied flamenco and Spanish at the University of Seville. He was "looking for a dancer" when he met Cihtli Ocampo, who was studying dance on a Fulbright and was "looking for an accompanist." The two -- who now are engaged -- co-founded Arte y Pureza, which on its tour of the United States will perform in San Diego, Berkeley, San Francisco and New York, in addition to Los Angeles.

Although Margolis said that 50 percent of flamenco musicians he has encountered worldwide and many of his recent flamenco students in San Diego are Jewish, he is the only Jew in his seven-person troupe, which includes singer-dancer Miguel Pena Vargas, known as El Funi. "Flamenco doesn't seem to pan out among other cultures until you leave Spain," he said.

Not unlike flamenco, the tango has multiple influences, including Spanish, Latin American and African. According to Dr. Lina Kaplan, who along with Vladimir Estrin will be teaching a tango class at American Jewish University this fall, you can hear the Russian Jewish influence in the melodies of many pieces of tango.

The tango developed mostly in Buenos Aires in the mid- to late 1800s, when Ashkenazi Jews migrated to Argentina.

The tango even has a grisly link to the Holocaust. Kaplan, a practicing psychologist, said that the term, "Death Tango," originated in the concentration camps when Jews had to play tango numbers during executions of their co-religionists.

To Kaplan, however, the tango is about so much more than Jewishness or any other ethnicity. To her, the tango becomes a quest that is as much metaphysical as physical. She wants her students to "enhance awareness, mindfulness, being in the present moment." She and Estrin "emphasize much more the interpersonal and the personal elements of dance," as opposed to learning just the steps.

That is not to say that she is solely a philosopher of the dance. Kaplan, 43, is also a practitioner who recently returned from a trip to Argentina, where for two weeks she said she spent half her time dancing.

If she sounds like a teenager at Carnaval, she has an appreciation for the higher forms of the art. She speaks of the tango as "a metaphor for life.... It's not simply a dance."

Arte y Pureza will perform "Maestria" on Friday, Sept. 28, at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater, 4800 Hollywood Blvd. For tickets or more information, call (818) 249-1428.

American Jewish University will offer "The Spirit of Tango: A Path to Personal and Interpersonal Growth" on Sundays from noon to 2 p.m., beginning Oct. 7. For information, call (310) 440-1246. For tickets to the Arte y Pureza performance, visit http://www.itsmyseat.com. For more information on Arte y Pureza, visit http://www.arteypureza.com.

For more information about the class "The Spirit of Tango," visit http://www.ajula.edu.

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