New York musician and musicologist Alexander Gelfand once wrote an article entitled, “Tango: Not Jewish, But Not 100% Not Jewish.” How can this be said about one of the most quintessential and well-loved symbols of the country of Argentina? Tango is not exactly known as having Jewish roots. However, like many things within Argentina’s history, it is not without Jewish influence.
The origins of the tango are actually not precisely known. Some believe that it came from an Andalusian dance of the same name. Some think that it grew from the Cuban habañera. The word tango is generally thought to have first been used in Candombes, or religious festivals, held by the descendents of black slaves. During these religious festivals there was much dancing to the rhythm of the Tang drums, and participants started to use the word “tang” for everything: the dance itself, the drums used, and even the places where these religious rituals were carried out.
But no one knows for sure what sparked the tango to grow out of the slums of Buenos Aires in the 1880s. Regardless, it is known that the dance was quickly embraced and loved by the underclass of Buenos Aires. This is how European Jews were some of the very first people to dance the Argentine tango. Mass immigration of Jews to Argentina first began in the 1890s. So as the Jewish community grew, so did the tango.
In the 1910s, the tango spread throughout West Europe, and by the 1920s, it was absolutely flourishing within Argentina. At this time, many of the most famous tango orchestras had Jewish musicians. It was also at this same time that European Jews began writing their own Yiddish tangos.
Within the Jewish community, the tango perhaps hit its most important role during the Holocaust. Inevitably, the tango became part of life in the Nazi concentration camps. Yiddish tango became an expression of life and yearning for freedom by the prisoners. Interestingly, the Nazis allowed this music to be played. However, they forced Lagerkapellen, the camp orchestras, to play the Tango of Death to accompany prisoners as they were walked to the gas chambers. Thus, Yiddish tango adopted its melancholy nature.
During happier times, Jewish tango composers living in Buenos Aires were very successful writing Yiddish tangos and composing for the Yiddish Theater. Some immigrated to New York where they were able to spread this music and culture throughout the United States as well.
Today, Yiddish tango is just one chapter in the entire history of the Argentine tango. However, it has greatly contributed to the love and acceptance of the tango all around the world, as well as the tango’s many forms, from Tango Orillero to Tango Canyengue. Argentine tango is a symbol of Jews’ ability to adapt to, and enrich, the ethos of their adoptive countries.