Once, when I was on an all-night bus ride in Brazil, an Argentine man sitting in the rear strummed a guitar, singing one tango after another. The slow, emotional music, its lyrics filled with loss and nostalgia, seemed the appropriate soundtrack. But after a while the Brazilians aboard had enough.
One passenger finally yelled, "Don't you know any sambas?"
Another shouted, "He doesn't know any sambas! He only knows how to cry."
Yes, tango is sad music. No wonder that Jews, and Jewish musicians, have been drawn to it. With its melancholy passion, it's a vehicle for expressing the mournful side of the Jewish soul ... and experience.
Jewish Tango Cabaret -- a performance at the New JCC at Milken in West Hills on Saturday, May 13 -- takes this link a step further. The show uses dance, music and song -- as well as drama and narration -- to trace high and low points in Jewish history from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s. The live music will be performed by a five-piece tango band headed by Argentine-born Pablo Goldstein; the dancing is by Tango for Three Dance Company -- all of whom are Jews originally from Argentina.
Goldstein got the idea for the show three years ago when he saw a recital/lecture that demonstrated the musical links between tango and Jewish music. He then spoke with Arnold Kopikis, an Argentine-born rabbi who had already researched the topic.
"The tango began in Argentina, of course," Kopikis said in an interview with The Journal, "in the brothels and lower-class bars, often played by Italian and Jewish immigrant musicians. By the 1920s, the tango had radiated out from Argentina to North America and Europe. It became the rage in Paris and London and Berlin." By the 1930s musicians were blending tango with the popular music of each region. Jewish musicians did this as well, combining it with traditional Jewish music.
Kopikis said that tango was a part of Jewish life even in the ghettos and concentration camps: "There was a Jewish poet who was assigned by the Nazis to gather an archive of poetry for a museum that the Nazis hoped would display the relics of a disappeared culture. What happened is that this poet found a whole series of tango lyrics in Yiddish. He hid them, escaped, and was able to get to Israel with the lyrics. These were not translations. These were tangos originally written in Yiddish."
These tango lyrics, Kopikis added, harshly describe daily life in the ghetto, and even in the death camps.
"I'm a musician," said Goldstein, the show's music director, "and the knowledge that there was this connection, that tango had been a part of Jewish life moved me deeply. I wanted to put this concept together in a total musical-theatrical presentation, one that includes dancers and a real tango band."
Goldstein also realized that some songs in Hebrew from Israel's early days had tango roots.
"Yaffa Yarkoni and others sang tangos -- like "Habibi" -- that inspired a young Israel in the 1950s. So for Jewish Tango Cabaret, I wanted a vocalist who not only sings in Spanish -- the language of most tangos -- but also in Yiddish and Hebrew.
His singer, who goes by the single name Elisheva, is Mexican and Jewish, heavily steeped in Yiddishkayt. She grew up absorbing these songs, without even knowing they were tangos.
"Her voice is beautiful and pure and melodic," Goldstein said.
The show's setting is a fictional cabaret in Berlin whose owners and customers are Jewish. It starts during the early 1930s, the elegant but ominous years between the wars. As the interplay among song, instruments and dancers evolves, so too does the drama. We see the cabaret after Kristallnacht, its furniture in ruins. The scene shifts to a ghetto, then to a concentration camp, where -- Kopikis said -- the tango continued to be played and danced, in improvised locations, offering a bit of hope in the face of death.
Jewish Tango Cabaret's only spoken words are a narration (in English) before each scene. The narrator is an old man remembering his life story, what he's experienced, and the dancers, musicians and singer perform that man's memories.
"The show is not just artistic, it's also educational, and for all ages," said Teresa, Goldstein's wife and one of Tango for Three's dancers, who also prefer, for their performance work, to use only their first names. "We want people to know an aspect of Jewish culture and history that's not known at all. But we also emphasize the triumphant periods after the war, the founding of Israel, as well as a celebration of Jewish life in the U.S. The same characters who are at the cabaret in Berlin in the 1930s, and later in the ghetto and the concentration camp, meet in a nightclub in New York in 1948."
The show is only being performed on one date in the Los Angeles area, so I had to rely on a taped preview to get a sense for it. What I saw includes part of the New York 1948 reunion dance and song, set in a Manhattan nightclub. There's bust-out energy in the music and dance, tangos in Spanish and Yiddish, and swing-dancing -- an emotional and exciting reaffirmation of life.
"We did the show at the San Diego Jewish Arts Festival and at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills," Teresa said, "and got wonderful responses." The day after this interview, the Jewish Tango Cabaret went to Argentina to perform there.
Omar Zayat, director of the Latin American Jewish Association, which is presenting the show, said the show is a natural fit for his group's efforts. Who better to sponsor a performance about tango and Jews than an organization that caters to Latin American Jews?
Jewish Tango Cabaret will perform on May 13 at 8 p.m. at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. $25-$40. Jewish Tango Cabaret will perform on May 13, 2006 at 8 p.m. at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. $25-$40. For more information, call (818) 464-3274 or visit www.jccatmilken.org.