Liza P. Burkin

Simja Dujov: The Man, the Mystery, the Mustache

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Post originally published by LandingPadBA

Although fancily self-described as a Jewish Argentine citizen of the world, Simja Dujov is really just a struggling musician living in Buenos Aires, trying to make it big. As bandleader of the electro klezmer/Balkan reggaeton amalgamation Simja Dujov & the Strudel Klezmer Band, he is pushing the limits of contemporary Latin Jewish music. As a DJ for the beloved La Bomba del Tiempo, he is making Monday nights in Buenos Aires worth going out on despite having just recovered from the weekend. As a mustachioed urban cowboy, he is pioneering the frontier of respectable facial hair. Over coffee in Palermo Soho we discussed his multicultural identity, what it’s like to make it as a musician in Buenos Aires, and his dreams of opening a Jewish deli.

Tell me a little about growing up Jewish in Argentina

In Argentina, you understand that you live in a non-Jewish country on a non-Jewish continent. My family hasn’t been religious for two or three generations, but they continue practicing traditional values. So I grew up feeling sort of Jewish, but I got deep into it when I was 18 or 19 in my own way, through writing music.

“Electro” isn’t something you often hear before “klezmer.” When did you combine these two very different genres?

I was in a regular Balkan-style klezmer big-band in my hometown of Córdoba. We were playing very traditional music, and for me it was an interesting musical process because I was using it as a way to understand my family and my roots. However, after six years of that I realized I didn’t feel sincere when I was onstage. I was playing nice music, and people liked it and they danced… but it wasn’t me. And I realized that I had to go deep inside me and not my family history, and so I left Argentina for New York and started composing. I’d left my hometown behind, I’d left that story behind, and it was time to really start thinking about myself and what I have to say. When I started composing, the result was a mixture of klezmer style, Middle Eastern style, Balkan style, but also a Latin American beat. Because I was by myself and not with my band, I started using electronic mediums to compose. If I wanted to record I would just go to the studio and work with the electronics.

What do you miss most about Buenos Aires when you’re on tour?

I love this city. Even though people are attached to their traditions, I love it because it’s full of life. Every day, ever hour, it never stops. And what I like the most is the chaos because it’s a chaos I understand. I love New York and I love Tel Aviv, but everything’s so…understandable. Tel Aviv has it’s own charm, its own chaos, but I was born here and I understand this chaos.

What do you miss the least?

The same thing- the chaos! Also when I’m outside Argentina on tour I’m working, but I’m really on vacation. Everything’s new, even if I’ve already been in that city, and every second is a gift. I try to live my life this way in Buenos Aires, but my phone’s always ringing and I’m always feeling like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. But when I’m on tour, I always feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing… even if I’m not doing anything!

Also, Buenos Aires is more attached to traditions than New York or Tel Aviv. People inside the Jewish community here in Argentina are afraid of change– they fear assimilation. I think there’s a deep feeling of identity that they are scared will get lost. It sounds a little corny, but I think the biggest fight we have is against our own prejudices, our own limits. My music is Jewish because I’m Jewish and I’m making it, but I don’t think it’s a Jewish product. I don’t want that, I just want to show what I’m doing and share it.

You’re known as the “Jewish Manu Chao.” How do you feel about this nickname?

Well it’s a mechanism of the press, which is fine. I love Manu Chao and think he’s very intelligent. He synthesizes so many different ideas, but in the end has a really simple sound but with complex content. So if they tell me I’m the “Jewish Manu Chao” then that’s amazing. But sometimes I have to disagree with it because Manu Chao is known and marketed as being multicultural, so if you say the “Jewish” Manu Chao then it’s like a contradiction. But it works for publicity.

You’re currently working on an album, what are some of the overarching themes?

Nick Cave once said, “I write about what everybody writes about: love, God and death.” I write about other things, but in the end it’s really these three. I write about my way of understanding God, which isn’t really through religion. Also my way of understanding how people express their religion. I’m rediscovering and interpreting the contradictions in my life, being a Jewish, Argentine citizen of the world.

I also just wrote a song about the economic crisis. I love Leonard Cohen, and recently on his last tour in London before he singing one of his songs he mentioned the crisis and how it’s affecting him and our collective future. So even Leonard Cohen, who has lived through a lot, is discovering what a crisis is. Most Americans, even the New York Times is discovering what a crisis is because they weren’t alive during The Great Depression. Here in Argentina we have a crisis once every ten years, a big crisis, with little ones in between. So for me it’s curious to see how the developed world is handling their fear of crisis. Don’t get me wrong, we’re also afraid because we don’t like crisis, but we know how to handle it. I’m 27-years-old and I’ve already passed through many crises. And I do think there’s something very wrong with that, but I have a good life here. So I wrote a song called “Buenos Aires,” that’s a presentation about how it’s not so difficult to live in a place that has a crisis every ten years.

People in Buenos Aires seem to be interested in just a few genres of music: tango, electrónica, rock nacional and jazz. Is it hard to find an audience in the city?

It’s very difficult for an Argentine musician to have a record label contract, and it’s extremely difficult to have a tour here. For me it’s much easier to travel to Belgium, Spain or wherever, than in Argentina. It’s not about the music, though. If people hear good music, they’ll like it, they’ll dance. The problem is the people who organize the events [in Argentina] before they have these prejudices in their minds. For example, there was a klezmer festival here, and two years ago I played with a traditional klezmer band, but this year I decided I want to play with my own band. But the festival organizer, he says, “people here don’t want to listen to new music. The audience is not prepared.” I thought he was underestimating them, so I played my music, which is really different, and they liked it. They really liked it. Not only people from the audience but the other musicians too, and the organizer was like, “this shouldn’t have happened.” So…that’s a problem.

How does Argentine Jewish culture contrast with what you’ve seen in New York and Tel Aviv? The food for instance is obviously pretty different…

I was going to open a deli here! With pastrami and pickles, but it was too expensive to rent a place. But the contrast between Jewish life abroad and Buenos Aires, well it depends where you walk in this city. The city can be very Jewish depending on where you go. If you go to the theater, you’ll find Jewish people acting and writing, if you go to people’s houses you’ll find Jewish books. It depends on the little world inside Buenos Aires in which you live. But the main difference that I’ve felt is that in New York and Tel Aviv, Jewish people have created their own Jewish life. You can call it assimilation, you can call it whatever you want, but they grew up listening to hip-hop and they also go to Jewish events. And now that they’re 30 or 40 they’ve created something new, a combination of the religious and secular. But in Buenos Aires, people grow up listening to rock and hip-hop or whatever, and now that they’re adults, when they think about Jewish life they automatically think of traditions. They associate Jewish life with old things and old boring traditions. Or, they go Orthodox. In Buenos Aires there is a small opportunity to build your own Jewish life, but it isn’t so developed yet. I think we can have a Buenos Aires Jewish life without being so conservative.

Be honest, how long does it take you to get your facial hair ready in the morning?

25 minutes. No, just kidding. A minute and a half, so half a song.

To check out songs and upcoming shows from Simja Dujov, go to http://www.myspace.com/dujov

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This entry was published on April 22, 2010 at 12:10 am and is filed under Music. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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