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Arts & Culture Two Can Tango: Arabs and Jews Play Argentina’s Music Together

April 11, 2005
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Anibal Jaule, a well-known tango singer, has performed throughout his native Argentina and as far away as the United Arab Emirates But the 54-year-old baritone, whose ancestors came from Lebanon, never imagined that one day he’d sing in a synagogue.

Along with three other Argentine musicians of Arab descent and seven Jewish musicians, Jaule forms the nucleus of Salam-Shalom, the world’s first Arab-Jewish tango orchestra.

The idea is simple: to promote peace and understanding between Arabs and Jews through tango, Argentina’s beloved national music.

Naming the orchestra Salam-Shalom — “peace” in Arabic and Hebrew — was the brainchild of Segismundo Holzman, a concert promoter and lifelong tanguero who last year established an all-Jewish tango orchestra called Inspiracion.

“I have very good friends of Arab origin,” Holzman said. “In this country, Arabs and Jews have had good relations for many years, so I thought, why not have an orchestra that adapts both Arab and Jewish music to the tango?”

Holzman registered the name Salam-Shalom in June 2003 and quickly won the sponsorship of both the Centro Islamico de la Republica Argentina, the country’s leading Muslim entity, and AMIA, Argentina’s largest Jewish organization.

After a year of preparation, the orchestra held its first concert in November 2004 at the Salon Dorado de la Legislatura de Buenos Aires, an official government reception hall.

Two weeks later, the local Jewish community inaugurated a new shul in the Buenos Aires suburb of Belgrano, and Salam-Shalom was there for the occasion.

“Never before had Arab musicians performed in a synagogue in Argentina,” Holzman said.

Salam-Shalom’s next concert was set for this week in front of 800 people at the Teatro General San Martin in downtown Buenos Aires.

Omar Ahmed Abboud, secretary of the Centro Islamico, says these kinds of events help dispel the notion that Arabs and Jews cannot live together peacefully.

“We’re in favor of any cultural initiative whose principal objective is to create a climate of peace,” Abboud told JTA. “We have very good relations with the Jews, and we have some common elements, the first being that we are all Argentines. Even the terrorist attack against AMIA headquarters,” the main Buenos Aires Jewish institution, which was bombed in July 1994, “did not affect relations between the Arabs and Jews.”

Lior Hayat, cultural and press attache at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, said the Israeli government enthusiastically supports the idea of a Jewish-Arab tango orchestra.

“Our point of view is that the Middle East conflict shouldn’t be exported all over the world,” Hayat said. “The idea is that these are Jews and Arabs in Argentina; they are not Israelis and Palestinians. They can cooperate together; they can play music together.”

He added, however, that Salam-Shalom obviously has political connotations, since “you cannot bring together a Jew and an Arab and not make it a political issue.”

Roughly 900,000 of Argentina’s 36 million inhabitants trace their origins to the Arab world. Slightly less than half are Muslim; the rest are Christian. There are about 250,000 Argentines of Jewish origin.

Abboud, whose family emigrated from Lebanon in 1930, considers a prominent Argentine rabbi, Daniel Goldman, as a “very intimate friend.” The men have collaborated on ecumenical projects, the most recent being a Buenos Aires conference on the teachings of the 13th-century rabbi and philosopher Moses Maimonides — whose Arabic name was Abdalla Abu Imram ibn-Maimun and who is known in the Jewish world as the Rambam.

Last year, the Centro Islamico presented Argentine-Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim its highest honor. Abboud said Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor of the Staatskapelle Berlin, was selected for his efforts — together with the late Palestinian intellectual and anti-Israel activist Edward Said — “in favor of peace and dialogue in the Middle East.”

The Arab-Israeli conflict is a world apart from the poor Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca, where tango music was born out of the grinding poverty of the late 19th century.

Melancholy yet passionate, tango was performed mainly by Italian immigrants equipped with nothing more than their violins, their voices and the bandoneon, a specialized type of accordion that is essential to any tango orchestra.

Tango was popularized by the legendary Carlos Gardel, who in 1917 recorded his first tango song on the Odeon record label, which was owned by Romanian Jewish immigrant Max Glucksmann.

Despite its appeal, by the 1960s the tango seemed to be losing popularity as it lost ground to the Beatles and rock’n’roll. Tango came to be seen as the music of older people.

Yet since the mid-1990s tango has enjoyed a comeback among Argentine youth. Clubs where tango orchestras perform have sprouted up throughout Buenos Aires, especially in the trendy neighborhood of San Telmo. There’s even a Buenos Aires FM radio station, Radio Tango, that plays nothing but tango music.

Holzman, 70, was born and raised in Zarate, a town in Buenos Aires Province. He now lives and works out of a cluttered Buenos Aires apartment just 10 blocks from where his hero Gardel grew up.

“Since childhood I have been passionate about tango, and I have always been involved with Jewish organizations,” he said. “I put two and two together and understood that the moment had finally come to form this orchestra. The Arabs received me very well. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have continued with this idea.”

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