On a trip to Buenos Aires, San Francisco composer Debora Simcovich decided to seek out the house where she had grown up. It was in Villa Crespo, a Jewish neighborhood, and as she strolled the streets and poked into shops, she realized she wanted to write something about the place that was instrumental in shaping who she was as a person and a musician.
The result is “La Media Cuadra Inmortal,” a collaboration between Simcovich and Orquesta Victoria, a 12-piece tango ensemble from Argentina that will showcase the new album in a series of shows in the Bay Area beginning next week. All shows include a dance performance and talk about the connection between Argentina”s Jewish community and tango, two topics not often discussed in one breath.
Jews began arriving in Argentina in the 1880s after fleeing pogroms in Russia. Among the arrivals were many classically trained violinists, some of whom began playing in tango ensembles, thus introducing the instrument to the genre, according to Simcovich.
“Prior to that, flute was played in tango, but they realized it could be substituted with a violin,” she said. “It was enriching for the orquestras and a beautiful way for Jews to integrate into the Argentine culture.”
In one of the songs on “La Media Cuadra Inmortal,” the singer walks through her old neighborhood, reminiscing about landmarks such as the movie theater and cafes and recalling the children that raced in the streets. It also pays homage to the many immigrants who settled in Buenos Aires — Italians and Russian and Polish Jews — who each left an indelible imprint on Argentine cuisine, music, literature and movies.
The flower of my youth
has left in me the glow
of shining hopes so blue,
l”chaim, shalom …
The barrio of my birth,
chaloimes (dreams) saved us all,
our life of immigrants sought shelter
on the Southern shores …
“The album is very nostalgic, because all the lyrics speak about immigration,” said Alexey Musatov, a violinist with Orquesta Victoria. “It”s a lot of pictures from the past and love stories of a person who immigrated.”
Although today tango is synonymous with Argentine culture, it wasn”t always mainstream. Yet Jewish musicians recognized in tango the darker strains of klezmer, with its songs of longing and despair, and flocked to the style, enriching it with their own flavor, said Anita Epelbaum Weinstein, a sociologist based in Buenos Aires who will give a lecture before each show about the Jewish roots of tango.
Tango created an opening for Jewish arrivals as they sought to assimilate into Argentine culture.
“They were a minority for whom it wasn”t always easy to integrate,” Epelbaum Weinstein said. “Those from Spain already spoke Spanish, the Italians were Catholic so they fit in easier, but Jews were so different. The music gave Jews the possibility to be part of this movement.”
The arrival of more Jews in the 1920s and 1930s coincided with the rise of radio and the movie industry, the latter of which featured many tango songs. That helped the genre move from the periphery to center stage, where it remains today. Yet by and large, tango lyrics have continued to be written by men.
“La Media Cuadra Inmortal” is an attempt to change that.
“In traditional tango lyrics, women are often portrayed in either an extremely negative way or in some idealized way, so they are not real,” Simcovich said. “And it blames the woman for the end of the relationship. It essentially leaves half of the world”s experience out.”
Contact Karina Ioffee at 510-262-2726. Follow her at Twitter.com/kioffee.
When & Where: Reception
7 p.m. June 23, concert
8 p.m. June 25 at Mission Cultural Center, San Francisco ($5 reception, $10-$25 concert, www.missionculturalcenter.org); 8 p.m. June 24 at Freight & Salvage, Berkeley ($26-$30, www.thefreight.org); 8 p.m. June 26 at Marines Memorial Center, San Francisco ($26-$30, www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com); 8 p.m. June 27 at The Playhouse, San Anselmo ($26, www.playhousesananselmo.org) 8 p.m. June 28, Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto ($26-$30, http://paloaltojcc.org)
Online: Go to www.mercurynews.com/music to see a video of Orquesta Victoria.