BUENOS AIRES – With his dreadlocks, signature Salvador Dali mustache and huge Star of David necklace, Simja Dujov can be easily spotted on the streets of the Argentinian capital’s artsy Palermo neighborhood. And so can his music, which is a unique blend of klezmer and Latin beats.
In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, the 33-year-old composer, musician and DJ says combining Jewish traditions with distinctly Latin flavors is a growing trend, and he is among the next generation that is leading the way.
“It’s kind of like what has happened with African American and Jewish cultures, the blending and the influencing,” says Dujov. “We’re going to be the next big blend – Latino with Jewish [traditions].”
Dujov and his band play a hard-to-describe mix of klezmer, local cuarteto, Latin cumbia, Balkan music, dance, pop and several other genres. According to Dujov, his musical mashup is visceral rather than cerebral. He says he does not sit down and piece together elements in a technical manner, but rather composes first and thinks later.
“I don’t say to myself, ‘I will take this house music riff and tack on a Shabbat song.’ Instead, I want to share a germ of an idea, a message – I’m sad about breaking up with someone or I’m happy that the world is going to an amazing place — so I start writing and playing music and add a beat and the base, and that’s how it gets created.”
Dujov’s 2008 album “Santificaras las Fiestas” includes the kind of music that immediately elicits an emotional response. While a distinctly Latin beat plays in the background, the song “Parties,” for example, has a refrain that is spoken over the music in a way that brings punk to mind
“I’ve been through parties, I’ve been through space, I’ve been through lovers, I’ve been through race,” Dujov belts out in English and Hebrew.”
Another song, “Shalom,” is the perfect marriage of traditional klezmer and Latin music, with both sides equally represented as he pleads for peace and sings that he won’t stop “until I find it.”
With some 245,000 Jews, mostly in the capital, Argentina is a heavily Catholic country, and one, according to the singer, that has a history of pronounced xenophobia. But Dujov – born in Cordoba, Argentina to a secular Jewish family that emigrated from the Ukraine a century ago – is intent on bringing all sides of himself to his performances. And he’s succeeding: Dujov says he often finds himself at a world music or pop festival at home, or in Europe or Asia, with an audience of mostly non-Jews loudly singing along with him in Yiddish.
It also means that he has helped create a new kind of community in his hometown of Buenos Aires with Jewish events that stretch the boundaries of traditional religious practice.
Dujov’s popular havdalah parties in the city welcome people to an alternate reality where they can experience elements of the Jewish ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath with smelling different kinds of scents, basking in candlelight and drinking spiced-wine that he makes himself. Instead of reciting the traditional Hebrew blessings, he devotes a few minutes to telling the mixed audience about the ritual’s role as a connecting point between the sacred and the secular.
For the past decade, Dujov has also led the musical portion of Buenos Aires’s Pesaj Urbano, an annual Passover-themed festival in the city’s center. Attracting as many as 30,000 people, it offers Jewish experiences for people of all faiths — from Jewish and Middle Eastern food and tango music played by klezmer musicians to Jewish comedy in Spanish.
“If you want to live in a Jewish way, it doesn’t make any sense to pretend, like to go to synagogue once in a while and feel Jewish,” he says. “If you are going to do a ritual, you need to feel that the moment of ritual is different. A party can be a sacred moment.”
That kind of sentiment might be familiar to those who frequent liberal Jewish hotspots in NY or LA, but Dujov and his peers are pioneers among Latin American Jews. He is adamant that he is not trying to imitate American Judaism, but creating something completely different.
‘A party can be a sacred moment’
Dujov traces his own spiritual and artistic journey, in part, to Argentina’s economic crisis from 1998 to 2002, when he witnessed tremendous hunger, hardship and division within his country. Scores of families, including many Jewish ones, fled in search of a better life.
He recalls that trucks transporting live cattle were sometimes overtaken by starving people. “They would kill and butcher the cows right on the street. It was horrible,” he says.
That early awareness of people in need was compounded by a trip he took soon after, at 20, through the small Argentinian towns in the country’s east, towards Uruguay, “to learn where I came from,” he says. While there he met relatives and heard stories about his great-grandparents.
“I saw photographs of them and you could see their long beards and how their hard lives showed on their faces. I felt that their suffering allowed for my happiness and security,” he says. After that experience, Dujov says he became more connected to his Jewish origins and to the importance of helping others.
But it was a trip to New York City that helped shape his musical style. Through JDub Records, Dujov met other Jewish musicians including the members of Balkan Beat Box, an Israeli group that fuses genres, and Josh “SoCalled” Dolgin, who is famous for mixing hip hop and klezmer. The encounter with them left him changed as a musician.
“When I started composing my own music after that, it was suddenly not 100 percent klezmer,” Dujov says. “Even if I tried to copy it, I couldn’t. My Latin identity came out together with other parts of myself. You need to open all the doors of yourself to share something authentic.”
‘If you really care about Jewish values, you will meet “the other”‘
Dujov was recently invited to a discussion by a Latin Jewish group looking to combat assimilation. To their dismay, he suggested reframing assimilation as integration, and welcoming new members to the tribe.
“If you really care about Jewish values, you will meet ‘the other.’ You will open up a discussion with them,” he says.
Dujov adds that the group will likely never invite him to participate again, but he makes no apologies for his opinions.
“In this time in our history in which we have access to so much, including to so many kinds of music, we can build higher walls between things, or we can create something new from what we have. I choose to blend it all together and make something new.”