Tango with a Z: Playing the seductive dance in Berkeley

Orquesta Z
Orquesta Z: playing Ashkenaz on Thursday at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on Sunday afternoon. Left to right: violin: Jim Shallenberger, double bass: Sandy Schniewind, violin: Carol Braves, piano/’ukelele: Barbie Wong, director/vocals/guitar/bandoneon: Bendrew Jong

With its seductive conflation of eros and combat, tango has beguiled many a music and dance lover, so there’s nothing surprising about Bendrew Jong’s obsession with Argentina’s most passionate export. What’s unexpected is that his expertise in tai chi and kung fu provided ideal physical and mental training for mastering tango’s intricate dance moves, and that dancing has made him more dangerous on the mat.

“Tango is the ballroom dance closest to martial arts, and when I spar I use tango moves all the time,” says Jong, the lead singer and bandoneon player for Orquesta Z, which performs at Ashkenaz on Thursday, March 6 and Palache Hall in St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on Claremont Avenue on Sunday afternoon, March 9.

“Tango is all about balance, keeping focused, extending a leg but not shifting weight, and it felt natural after all the tai chi I’ve done.”

Founded by Jong around the end of 2010, Orquesta Z is a quintet featuring an impressive cast of musicians, including violinist and Crowden School instructor Jim Shallenberger, a founding member of Kronos Quartet who spent years touring with the hugely popular production Forever Tango. Holy Names Symphony violinist Carol Braves was earliest member of the ensemble to join Jong, followed by Prometheus Symphony bassist Sandy Schniewind, and pianist Barbie Wong, who teaches at the Oakland Public Conservatory and also plays a mean ukulele.


Jong had originally intended to focus on vocals, but the band was rocked last year when a car accident killed Resh Michael Ortega, a young master of the bandoneon (the small button accordion inextricably associated with tango). An architect by training and profession, Jong has studied classical music since childhood, and with his long history at the piano he’s the band’s primary arranger. Since bandoneon players are few and far between in the Bay Area he decided to take over the instrument himself, while revamping the band’s book to address the change from sextet to quintet.

“The other four musicians were superbly gifted sight readers and we’re at a point where we’ve worked out all the charts together and we’re playing really well,” Jong says. “Since then, I’ve worked really hard to get to the level where I’m playing bandoneon on half of the pieces.”

Photo: James Marco Starr
Tango dancing to Orquesta Z. Photo: James Marco Starr

The band honed its sound during the year that Diana Rowan and Rebecca Trujillo turned a small art gallery at Claremont and Ashby into the Garden Gate Creativity Center, which hosted regular milongas. In fact, it was OZ’s performance at a successful benefit to support Latin American Suzuki students in March 2012 that inspired Trujilo to take over the space, which functioned as the Creativity Center from Sept. 2012 to last July.

Jong caught the tango bug about 12 years ago while dating a woman who loved to salsa dance. He couldn’t get the hang of it, but found that tango came easily. He related to the chamber music sensibility of tango ensembles, and discovered that he could execute difficult tango steps with aplomb. He not only started attending tango music and dance gatherings, or milongas, that take place regularly in San Francisco and the East Bay, he pursued the art form to the source, and beyond.

“I went to Buenos Aires four times, and I’ve been to tango festivals all over the world,” Jong says. “I immersed myself in tango’s sound and history, and about six years ago during a San Francisco Tango Exchange pick-up session I brought my guitar and I got to sing two songs. I loved being up there singing tango. That’s where I decided I’m going to start a tango orchestra and sing.”


Born in the Sacramento Delta to American-born Chinese parents who met during World War II when his father was serving with the Flying Tigers in China and his mother was a nurse, Jong grew up in Berkeley and El Cerrito. He studied architecture at Cal, graduating in 1970, while getting swept up in the era’s radical politics. He’s been involved with a broad cross section of Berkeley’s cultural activities, from teaching tai chi to Greek folk dancing with David Nadel back when he was just getting Ashkenaz off the ground.

“I used to go there all the time to see music and dance,” Jong says. “I never dreamed I’d get to perform at Ashkenaz. I’m still flying high from getting to be on that stage.”

Rescuing the Julia Morgan Theater

If Bendrew Jong’s name looks familiar, you may be a longtime Berkeleyan who recalls his heroic campaign to rescue the Julia Morgan Theater in the late 1980s when there was talk of knocking it down. He and his wife Loraine Jong bought the 1908 jewel, one of the namesake architect’s finest works, and poured their money into it, while turning it into one of the East Bay’s most vital cultural outposts as the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts. But his plan to recoup their investment by selling the theater was thwarted by a lack of investors with vision, and he ended up taking a half-million dollar loss when he handed it over to the non-profit he had created.

Jong has found a new passion in tango. While he loves the classic sound of the mid century, “the golden era of the 1930s and 40s, which were a high time for beautiful lyrics and poems,” Jong says, “I was initially interested in nuevo tango,” the movement associated with Astor Piazzolla. “But there’s a lot less desire for that at milongas. About 80% of the scene is traditional. With Ashkenaz, it’s more open. I’m willing to experiment more. The first time we played there I arranged the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Hurt’ and we played that. That rooms allows a wider array of music.”

Recommended gig:

Linda
Linda Tillery has organized a concert on Saturday afternoon at the Freight for families to be entertained and learn about safety in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. Photo: courtesy Linda Tillery

Linda Tillery isn’t just one of the world’s most soulful singers, she’s also a singer with a huge soul. Feeling that she had to respond to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., she has organized a concert Saturday afternoon at Freight & Salvage “Remember the Children,” to provide healing entertainment and information on child safety (parents will have the opportunity to speak with experts from Berkeley Unified School District, Berkeley Mental Health Services, Polly Klaas Foundation and the Oakland/Alameda County Brady Campaign).


“Sandy Hook just drove me crazy,” Tillery said. “I seethed with rage, and then I thought rage will not do any good. What about creating an event for local parents and children where kids will be entertained and parents will be informed? It’s the old adage, think globally, act locally.”

The diverse line-up of performers includes vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg’s Charming Hostess, pianist Tammy Hall, bassist David Belove, drummer Deszon Claiborne, clown/body music expert Unique Derique, Broadway actress and singer Gina Breedlove, vocalist Tammi Brown, comedian and magician Calvin Kai Ku, and Sicilian-born multi-instrumentalist Laura Inserra.

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. He lives in West Berkeley.

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