'When you dance salsa, everybody is equal'

Musician-mathematician’s Latin-fushion klezmer gets Parisians swinging

Going by the musical nom de guerre David JewSalsa, alongside his band Cigarillos en el Shtruddle, a native son leads cross-cultural initiatives in Paris and beyond

David el Shatran in Jerusalem for the 2012 Israeli Salsa Festival with 'Mambo King' Eddie Torres. (Facebook)
David el Shatran in Jerusalem for the 2012 Israeli Salsa Festival with 'Mambo King' Eddie Torres. (Facebook)

PARIS — When klezmer meets salsa on the banks of the Seine, or there is a matzah-themed flashmob dancing in the Marais, one particular Parisian is likely responsible. Both a musician and a mathematician, he goes by the unlikely name of David JewSalsa.

David el Shatran is a 21st century Parisian, a man of both mixed interests and mixed ethnicity. A researcher in artificial intelligence who files patents under his birth name David Pergament, he became a certified salsa teacher during a “gap year” between his master’s degree and his doctorate, which he is still pursuing.

The married father of two young children leads a series of cross-cultural initiatives in Paris and beyond, bridging various genres of dance and music, as well as France’s various ethnic communities. He also performs with a band boasting the equally unlikely moniker, Cigarillos en el Shtruddle (Little Cigars in the Strudel).

For el Shatran, such mash-ups are a natural extension of his upbringing.

“My parents love music — jazz, classical, as well as klezmer. They educated me in a Judaism with values and cultures,” he says, emphasizing the “s” in cultures.

“My Ashkenazi father is from Poland. My Sephardic mother from Tunisia. At Pesach, there was always gefilte fish and horseradish, and msoki and harissa, Tunisian specialties, at the same meal,” he says. “I experienced the benefits of fusion since childhood.”

‘My Ashkenazi father is from Poland, my Sephardic mother from Tunisia. I experienced the benefits of fusion since childhood’

Back in 2012, el Shatran’s passions drew the attention of city officials. Organizers of the annual summer event known as Paris Plages, which creates urban beach scenes along the Seine, invited the JewSalsa project to stage public programs along the Seine.

“Four years ago, the organizers contacted us to bring our sauciness to each Sunday during Paris Plages,” he says. “The JewSalsa videos we created for Jewish holidays with original salsa music, and the concerts we played in New Morning, one of the best world music and jazz clubs of Paris, helped us to be considered as a strong cultural organization that delivers a positive message of respect between identities in Paris.”

Since then, JewSalsa has become an integral part of the annual outdoor event, as well as the weekly Thursday street festival known as “Paris Danses en Seine,” which translates to Paris Dances along the Seine. This summer alone, together with a team of volunteers, el Shatran led and organized 16 events, drawing 1,000 to 5,000 attendees at each event. These happenings attracted a broad cross section of France’s diverse population, including, of course, Muslims and Jews, not only in the audience but among performers.

“We have musicians from Moldavia playing with Jewish Parisian musicians,” he says. “It’s a cross culture mixing.”

Each Sunday from 3 to 8 p.m. during Paris Plages, July 20 to September 4, the JewSalsa crew taught dance between two landmark bridges of Paris, Pont des Art and Pont Neuf. Positioned in front of the iconic edifice of La Samaritaine, one of the city’s first department stores dating to 1870, JewSalsa created cultural bridges nearly as significant as the nearby physical ones.

The programming is filled with unabashed cultural pride. “When you come to our event, it’s written everywhere ‘JewSalsa,’” he says. “On the staff’s Borsalino hats, on our banners. We put pictures and videos on our Facebook pages with JewSalsa logos, so everyone sees it.”

A two-hour afternoon class for children preceded a three-hour jam for adults led by various teachers, musicians and DJs. They incorporate salsa, klezmer, oriental, bhangra or Indian themes into the content.

“It was just crazy,” he says. “A lot of people have enjoyed the JewSalsa philosophy. ‘Be proud of what you are, share your values, respect those of the others, and everyone will be happy.’”

‘Be proud of what you are, share your values, respect those of the others, and everyone will be happy’

When he teaches klezmer dance, el Shatran explains its origins, adding in jokes and the word, “L’Chaim” as his signature cue to start dancing. He brings in other elements from Jewish tradition with an abiding sense of ownership that may surprise more traditional Jews.

“In July, the event was at the same moment as the end of Tisha B’Av,” he says. “During the event, we explained where baseless hatred, ‘sinat hinam,’ can affect us, and we encourage people to spread baseless love, ‘ahavat hinam.’ We had 30,000 hits on the video of the klezmer dance lesson and the belly dance lesson of this special day.”

In a temporary departure from his academics, el Shatran earned his certification as a salsa instructor during a year break before starting his doctorate. Each week, he trained for 30 hours at a professional dance school.

‘As a guy who hated dancing, for the first time in my life I understood the dance world and my body loved it!’

“I went to a salsa dance lesson with the flutist of my band and it was the first time of my life I understood how it was possible to dance,” says el Shatran, who continues to work both as a musician and in artificial intelligence.

“I am a mathematician, and a musician, and at these lessons, the teachers explained how to move in a logical way, slowly, with logical words. I understood! As a guy who hated dancing, and who always spent time in front of a musical instrument instead of on the dance floor, for the first time in my life I understood the dance world, and how to move, and my body loved it!”

As a pianist, el Shatran had performed for his own entertainment and at weddings and restaurants. His repertoire included jazz, gypsy, klezmer and Middle Eastern tunes, both Jewish and Arab, or as he puts it, “music where there is improvisation.” And after learning how to dance salsa, he started to play salsa, he says. “I couldn’t resist the bewitching rhythms.”

Eventually, something else emerged, what he calls “my own original fusion: a klezmer-salsa orchestra. We take the music that talks to my blood — klezmer — and we play it in a salsa version.”

Naturally, the name of his band represents that mix of cultures: Cigarillos en el Shtruddle. The project also satisfies el Shatran’s love of sharing know-how.

“I was teaching artificial intelligence at the university. And teaching salsa is the same except that AI students are sweating only on the days of their exams,” he says. “In both universes, there is theory and practice, and my pedagogy is rigorous and full of jokes. Teaching salsa makes me feel that I bring happiness to people, and I create a context of proximity where I can share Latin cultures as well as Jewish ones — Yiddish, as well as Judeo-Spanish.”

‘Salsa is a school of life’

Social dance, el Shatran maintains, helps break down barriers that have, understandably, brought media attention in the wake of the devastating terror plaguing Paris.

“When you dance salsa, everybody is equal,” he says. “People from different ages, professions, social groups and cultures are dancing together. Salsa is a school of life.”

Most importantly, he adds, “You learn how to respect the ‘other,’ people who are different than you.”

The results are inspiring.

“Each Sunday, depending of the weather, we had between 1,000-5,000 people dancing with us, or just watching, smiling and applauding,” he says.

In video clips, el Shatran is a visible participant in a purple T-shirt: playing bongos, teaching Cubano dance and grooving amidst the crowd to “Am Yisrael Chai.”

“More and more people understood our message and our philosophy,” he says. “A lot of people who considered us as strictly entertainment movement now consider us a strong organization with a deeper vision. In the Jewish community, we are an organization that makes impossible things possible.”

That included introducing the payes-filled romp from the beloved French slapstick hit, “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob.”

‘We have proved that the majority of French people don’t have any problems with Jews’

“We have proved to a lot of Jews with doubts in France that it’s possible for example to dance to ‘Rabbi Jacob’ with thousands of people without any problems,” he says. “We have proved that the majority of French people don’t have any problems with Jews. That it’s just a small minority, which can be very active, but it’s just a small minority.”

El Shatran touts another benefit of his programming.

“We create opportunities for non-Jews to meet Jews in an innovative context. And guess what? They find us cool. Some people who interpret our work in Paris Plages as an interfaith work, and they say ‘thank you’ to us for the dialogue we are creating.”

What he calls a “global outlook” explains the initiative’s success, he says.

“We step toward other cultures with respect so other peoples step toward our culture with respect,” says el Shatran. “Dance is a universal language. Music is a universal language. This is the Judaism I love. This is the France I love.”

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