Jews and tango, Buenos Aires to S.F.

San Francisco composer Debora Simcovich cherishes the memories of her youth in Villa Crespo, a tree-lined Buenos Aires neighborhood that teemed with Jewish life. “Every time I go to Argentina, I like to see the house where I was born, where I used to play along the street,” she said.

On a visit a few years ago, she observed that though much of the old neighborhood had changed over the decades, a half-block section that includes her childhood home looked just as it did when she left at age 20.

Orquesta Victoria of Buenos Aires photo/paula abromovich

“This is a time warp,” mused Simcovich, who also is a lyricist, poet and author. “I started thinking, there is a story here. I thought it would be a short story. Then, I realized, this is going to be a tango.”

The result is “La Media Cuadra Inmortal” (The Immortal Half Block), a new CD of 12 of Simcovich’s tangos — including the title song about her old neighborhood — performed by Orquesta Victoria of Buenos Aires. The 12-piece tango ensemble will make its Bay Area debut in a series of concerts June 24-28. The series kicks off with a 7 p.m. reception Tuesday, June 23 at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco.

The shows will present Simcovich’s compositions as well as tangos associated with the influential tango performer and composer Carlos Gardel on the 80th anniversary of his death. Joining Orquesta Victoria will be Argentine singer Noelia Moncada, who sang on the Simcovich CD, plus leading California-based tango dancers.

An expert on Argentine Jewish culture, Anita Epelbaum Weinstein of the AMIA (Argentina’s Jewish federation), will present pre-concert talks titled “Jewish Life and Tango in Argentina.”

Tango was so popular among Argentine Jews that from the 1930s to 1960s, “Jewish performers at weddings and bar mitzvahs would have played klezmer music and also tango music,” Weinstein said in a Skype interview from Buenos Aires. “Many couples would get up and dance.”

Simcovich remembers attending such celebrations as a youth and enjoying Yiddish theater and klezmer concerts. As a teen, she performed in musicals presented by her Jewish youth group as well as in a theater collective. She also sang Yiddish, Hebrew and Ladino songs for Jewish audiences and at an Israeli-style cantina.

Debora Simcovich photo/natalie nava

She began writing tangos as a teen, receiving encouragement from the conductor of a tango orchestra, she recalled. After a friend introduced her to a producer at RCA Victor in Buenos Aires, she signed a recording contract while still a teenager. She wrote and sang “Fin de Año con los Argentinos” (New Year’s with the Argentines), which became a popular single in 1970. “People say they still hear the song,” she said.

Simcovich came to the Bay Area for college at age 20. She stayed, working as a teacher as well as writing songs, poetry and children’s books. Three years ago, during one of her regular visits to Buenos Aires, a chance encounter on a bus led her to the Café Vinilo nightclub. There she first heard Orquesta Victoria, which was playing traditional tangos with a unique flair.

 “It was absolutely amazing music,” she said. “I thought, ‘God sent me here.’ ” Several days later, she met Orquesta Victoria artistic director Cheche Ordoñez, who heard her tangos and wanted to record them.

Traveling between home and Buenos Aires over the next two years, Simcovich worked with Ordoñez and his arranger on orchestrations. “There were lots of choices in terms of length of the songs and lyrics,” she said. “I had this diamond in the rough and they polished it. And then once I heard what they arranged, I would put in my two cents.”

Meanwhile, she organized the orchestra’s Bay Area shows through her own company, Villa Crespo Productions.

Simcovich believes the new CD proves “that a woman can write tangos just as a man can, which legions of tango lovers assume is impossible. It also validates that Jews and tango are intrinsically connected. Without the Jews, the tango would not have gone so far.”

And in her heart, Simcovich is never far from Villa Crespo and its Jewish community. As she writes in the new CD’s title song: “The flower of my youth / has left in me the glow /of shining hopes so blue, / l’chaim, shalom …”

Orquesta Victoria performs Wednesday, June 24 at Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley; Thursday, June 25 at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, S.F., June 26 at Marines’ Memorial Theater, S.F., June 27 at San Anselmo Playhouse, June 28 at Palo Alto JCC. Performances at 8 p.m., pre-concert talk on “Jewish Life and Tango in Argentina” at 7 p.m. $20-$32.