The Trouble with Jewish Musical Genres: The Orquesta Kef in the Americas

Lillian M. Wohl

Gastón Mohadeb, Rafael Surijón and Juan Sevlever perform with other members of the Orquesta Kef at the 5776/2015 Rosh Hashana Urbano festivities in the Plaza República Oriental del Uruguay. Courtesy of SherBamate Productora.
Gastón Mohadeb, Rafael Surijón and Juan Sevlever perform with other members of the Orquesta Kef at the 5776/2015 Rosh Hashana Urbano festivities in the Plaza República Oriental del Uruguay. Courtesy of SherBamate Productora.
The office of the Orquesta Kef is just a small apartment, really, a few blocks north of the Estación Lacroze, the busy train station linking Buenos Aires's suburban neighborhoods to the Ciudad Autónoma—Argentina's autonomous capital city. Framed press photos and album covers decorate the walls of the offices where Rafael Surijón, the bassist and cofounder of the big band Jewish Argentine musical ensemble, greets me; Gastón Mohadeb, the front man, percussionist, and other cofounder, is giving me a tour of the space. I had met these two musicians on various occasions—at the Puro Purim (Pure Purim) concert, a Passover street party sponsored by the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (the AMIA, a community center and mutual aid society), a Hanukah party sponsored by Chabad Lubavitch, and a bar mitzvah, which I attended as a guest of the band. No stranger to journalists after much success in the past few years (though perhaps still to ethnographers), Gastón handed me a packet of newspaper clippings and CDs to look at as we talked.

That afternoon in March 2013, in the offices of the Orquesta Kef, Gastón told me that the band was founded less as a conceptual or academic project and more as an opportunity to provide a musical service that was scarce in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires in the late 1990s. While performing in a series of high school rock and funk bands, Gastón realized that there were no Jewish wedding bands playing special events. After conversations with his Aunt Sarita, friends more connected to religious circles, and other friends working as DJs, he realized that besides a few duos (namely Lerner and Moguilevsky), no wedding bands played live Jewish music. As such, he and a few friends— the founding members of the Orquesta Kef— began an exploration into Jewish musical history and diversity, experimenting with the klezmer repertory of the New York revivalists that had made its way to Argentina. While noting that a lack of Jewish wedding bands in Buenos Aires created a significant opportunity to find steady work playing at celebrations and parties, the Orquesta Kef emerged in the early 2000s to perform a musical labor—that of sewing together a fragmented Jewish musical past in Argentina to create a contemporary musical aesthetic relevant to the band's Latin American publics. For Rafael and Gastón, the rhythms, songs, and melodies that they encountered also provided them with a sense of familial continuity—a heritage reimagined though music. As Rafael told me: "We take Jewish culture and music as an expression of art. We put a strong emphasis on entertainment in order to reach people who are not so close to Jewish identity or religion. In that way, we try to provide content from a place of enjoyment and entertainment, yes, based on Jewish traditions, that respects the things that are written in the Torah."

The Orquesta Kef plays Jewish music in Buenos Aires, touring throughout Latin America and performing regularly in their hometown. The word kef (כייף), meaning "joy" or "fun," is Hebrew slang borrowed from Arabic, and the moniker aptly summarizes the band's musical project. Much of the music that Orquesta Kef performs is "party music," a category ethnomusicologist Evan Rapport uses to refer to “light” music, which captures cosmopolitan and multicultural attitudes while showcasing the range of skills of professional musicians. The band’s repertory includes the 1980s rock-ballad style of Mordechai Ben David (Mordechai Werdyger), the world famous Hasidic singer, Israeli pop, rock, and liturgical music by composers like Uzi Chitman, klezmer revival rhythms and melodies, and also Yiddish folksongs. However, they also rely on Latin American and other American popular musics such as funk, reggae, ska, cumbia, and Argentine folkloric music to define their sound. The repertory that they perform is mainly in Spanish, Hebrew, and Yiddish.

The Orquesta Kef is actually just one band among many performing groups operated by the Sherbamate Productora—the production company run by Gastón and Rafael. In many cases, the musicians working for Sherbamate Productora perform with more than one of the Sherbamate groups: the Orquesta Kef (a big band Jewish music ensemble), Der Faier (klezmer and Yiddish folksong), Fiesta de Pueblos (folk and popular dance music from around the world), La Gipsy (Balkan and klezmer), and Goy Friendly (a musical stand-up comedy show), among others. The founding members, Lionel Mohadeb (percussion), Ariel Liberczuck (keyboards and arrangements), Iván Barenboim (clarinet and saxophone), Cristián Martinelli (trumpet and trombone), Alberto Mirchuk (vocalist), Gastón Mohadeb, and Rafael Surijón make up the “first generation” of Kef—the founding members who established the band’s now iconic, energetic, up-tempo sound, embellished by brassy horns and woodwind solos, driven by bouncy bass lines, and heavy on percussion.

Toward the end of our interview, I finally asked Gastón about the band’s involvement as the catalyst for US immigration and cultural policy reform. What happened was this: In 2009, at the invitation of Jordan Peimer, then Director of Programming , at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, the Orquesta Kef agreed to play at the 2010 Fiesta Hanukah Party. Thrilled to perform in the United States, the band organized a full North American tour, lining up a variety of performance events, including an appearance during an NBA halftime show and gigs in Mexico and Central America. A few weeks before the concert, and much to the dismay of the band and the concert organizers, the P-3 nonimmigrant artists and entertainers visas filed on behalf of the band were denied. The Orquesta Kef was deemed to fail to meet the evidentiary standard of “culturally unique,” according to section 101(a)(15)(P)(iii) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15)(P)(iii) (2006), because they performed a "hybrid or fusion style of music” not considered to be “culturally unique to one particular country, nation, society, class, ethnicity, religion, tribe or other group of persons." The Orquesta Kef’s experience navigating the P-3 visa application and adjudication procedures not only called into question the possibility for Jewish music to occupy a place in the Latin American cultural imaginary, and Latin America in Jewish music, it also highlighted the problem of defining the standard of “culturally unique” in the United States.

In a Wall Street Journal article appearing on December 11, 2009, journalist Miriam Jordan reported on the incident, spotlighting the Orquesta Kef’s experience with the P-3 visa application process, while criticizing the adjudication procedures for nonimmigrant artists and entertainer applicants. With this issue in the public spotlight, the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Administrative Appeals Office set a new precedent, eventually offering a surprising decision on May 15, 2012, more than two and a half years after the incident. In short, they officially overturned the original visa denial, forever tying the musical legacy of the Orquesta Kef to US cultural policy and immigration reform. Although the approval of the visa was merely a symbolic gesture at that point, the decision was accompanied by a full clarification and reconceptualization of the definition of cultural uniqueness. Adjustments to the law expanded the definition of cultural uniqueness such that it was “not limited to traditional art forms, but may include artistic expression that is deemed to be a hybrid or fusion of more than one culture or region” and “may apply to beneficiaries whose unique artistic expression crosses regional, ethnic, or other boundaries.” According to Gastón, when the band first received the news of the original denial, the Skirball Cultural Center canceled the tour immediately. Following the Wall Street Journal article, the band was permitted to travel to the United States; however, it was too late to reschedule the tour.

By endorsing so-called “hybrid” or “fusion” forms of cultural expression, this ruling addressed the limitations of the implied definition of culturally unique by replacing an emphasis from aesthetic categorization to personal and social embodiment. In the case of the Orquesta Kef, to argue that their music and performance style “crosses regional, ethnic, or other boundaries” is to deny the musicians their ability to be Jewish Argentines—to ignore the ways in which these racial and ethnic categories are not exclusive, but rather, mutually constitutive and representative of the longer history of Jews in Latin America. In spite of the rapid movement and exchange of music on the internet, the Orquesta Kef’s experience being denied P-3 visas reminds us that musicians themselves do not always cross borders as easily, and that the ability for Jewish music to highlight Jewishness remains tied to Jewish embodiment. While the Orquesta Kef is perhaps unique in the world of Jewish Argentine musical performance, its struggles to establish its “cultural uniqueness” highlight the unresolved question of the cultural intelligibility of circulations of Jewish sound and musicians across national boundaries in the twenty-first century.