September-October 2007

YIDDISH TANGO, ARGENTINEAN KLEZMER Y MAS...

BY AUDREY COLEMAN

yiddish_gustavoclarinet_1_475.jpgA Yiddish tango! Sounds crazy, no? But in our global village of Los Angeles, that's what's in store for the audience at Redcat on the evening of October 20th.

Of course, if you're already steeped in Yiddish culture and history, then you know that the waves of immigration bringing East European Jews to North America at the turn of the 20th century and then again after the Second World War, also brought Yiddish speakers to Latin American countries. Thus, in the 1930s, while Irving Berlin and George Gershwin were making music for Tin Pan Alley, Anibal Troilo and Carlos Gardel were busy writing Yiddish lyrics for tangos performed in the clubs of Buenos Aires.

Thanks to the innovative programming of the non-profit Yiddishkayt Los Angeles and adventuresome spirit of Redcat (which stands for the Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theatre), the intimate 300-seat theatre located beneath Disney Hall will feature an evening of Yiddish culture, Buenos Aires style.

The concept is another example of how Yiddishkayt Los Angeles explores Yiddish connections to different cultures, placing it in a larger context for Jews and non-Jews alike. They have done so in several citywide feyiddishimagesnypl_v2.jpgstivals since the mid-1990's under the leadership of organization founder Aaron Paley.

"For example, for the 1998 festival we went to Boyle Heights and we looked at the parallels between the Yiddish-speaking immigrants of the 1930s and the Latino Spanish-speaking immigrants of the 1990s," said Paley. "Boyle Heights was a very Yiddish-speaking neighborhood that became an almost homogeneous Spanish-speaking or Mexican and Chicano neighborhood. They were both working class immigrant communities dealing with the host culture."

In that festival, klezmer music encountered the mariachi tradition. "I brought a full klezmer and a full mariachi band and I had them work together. The instrumentation for both bands isn't that different - there's a brass section, there's a violin section, there's accordion in both and they're both playing celebration music. So as a result of this, nine years later these two groups are still working together doing these klez-mex concerts together." 

For Una Noche Idishe at Redcat, Paley is bringing performers from Buenos Aires together with local talent to explore Yiddish culture from that city through music, dance, and poetry. "With Argentina, it's really interesting to see these incredible tangos that were written in the 30s, the 40s, and the 50s and all had Yiddish lyrics to them. (As for klezmer music), it has always adapted to its host culture just as the Yiddish language has done. That's been the way that Yiddish has survived as a culture and as a language for over a thousand years, by looking at its host culture and taking things: ‘We like those words. We like that food...'"

The "house band" reflecting Argentina as host culture will be Klezmer Juice, under the leadership of Buenos Aires-born Gustavo Bulgach. Based in Los Angeles since 1993, Bulgach absorbed Yiddish culture, including klezmer music, from his grandparents. As a clarinetist and bandleader, he is keenly aware of its roots in the language."When I play, what I'm recreating is the phrasing of the old Yiddish language," said 38 year-old Bulgach. "So when I play, I project myself like I would be singing in Yiddish. If I can find the lyrics of the tune I'm playing, I learn the lyrics to know the inflection and the way it should be sung."

yiddishfoto-archivo.jpgThe band members joining Bulgach in Klezmer Juice also play other types of music around L.A. and bring subtle influences of jazz, rock, and punk to their klezmer gigs. In fact, the musical line-up for October 20 will further expand the notion of klezmer music. Instead of an accordion, the band will feature two guitars. Bulgach says guitarist Ken Rosser will achieve "with amp and tremolo" what the accordion normally does.

Klezmer, the Yiddish word for professional folk musician, is really an umbrella term, according to Bulgach who has a broad, cross-cultural perspective. "It's the way salsa is an umbrella term. Salsa music may represent what Latin music is for somebody who is not very familiar with it, but when you take a deep look at the music itself, then you find that within that salsa umbrella, you have cha-cha-cha, bolero, and many different forms, but all of them Latin American. As with language, you find that the Mexican accent is different from the Venezuelan accent and the Argentinean accent. Even within the same country, you find regional subdivisions in music. For example, you've got the high plateau music which is Peru and Bolivia and the north of Argentina and Chile. So, the same thing happens with klezmer."

Not only has klezmer music transplanted from Europe become tinged with different Latin American musical traditions, but it also has arrived with regional variations. "The Rumanian Jews were different from the Galician Jews, different from the Russian Jews and so forth. And the old music was also influenced by other traveling musicians they encountered - gypsies or local musicians - and by local and popular songs."

Gustavo Bulgach has traveled the world with klezmer and calls it the "soundtrack of the Diaspora." For Una Noche Idishe, he has connected Aaron Paley of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles with performers from Buenos Aires who are steeped in Yiddish culture. Along with Yiddish tango and Argentinean klezmer music, Paley, Bulgach, and Redcat artistic director Mark Murphy will also include a video montage of vintage Yiddish cultural events from Buenos Aires.

By the way, you won't need to understand Yiddish to enjoy Una Noche Idishe. "It's going to be a trilingual evening in English, Yiddish, and Spanish," said Paley. "It will be helpful to understand one of the languages but you don't need to understand two of them."

What you will understand and experience is the vibrancy that yet another tradition brings to the cultural tapestry of the giant village called Los Angeles.

For tickets to Una Noche Idishe, call the Redcat box office at 213-237-2800.


Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of traditional music and world  culture.