How an Israel-promoting web-video phenomenon bloomed in Latin America
The music video appeared, without much fanfare or explanation, in April. Its three stars—La Tigresa del Oriente and La Pequeña Wendy, both from Peru, and Delfín Hasta El Fín, from Ecuador—all populist specimens of unironic camp, were already YouTube stars. Maybe that’s why “En Tus Tierras Bailaré,” an inexplicable, Spanish-language musical tribute to the beauties of Israel, with a title that translates to “In Your Lands I’ll Dance,” has effortlessly racked up nearly 4 million views and spawned countless tributes and parodies. But where did it come from? Why did three South Americans team up to sing about their love for Israel and their plans to dance in Jerusalem? And why does the video superimpose their dancing on shots of the Tel Aviv skyline and—of all things—Hamantaschen?
Some commenters saw a Zionist conspiracy (when they weren’t expressing disdain for the video’s “bad taste”). But could the Israeli government, or any sympathetic organization, have masterminded something so anarchic, brazenly neglecting to tout Israel’s holy sites and instead pitching the Azrieli Mall highway bridge? Another theory: Maybe the artists were spontaneously moved by their love for Israel on their way home from an evangelical church. Yet others speculated it was all a big prank staged by an Israeli backpacker trawling the Incan ruins of Peru, who thought it’d be funny to juxtapose their song with footage of the Tel Aviv pride parade.
In truth, credit (or blame, if you prefer) lies with a different set of rootless cosmopolitans: several creative-class Argentine Jews (and one quarter-Jew) living in Madrid, Buenos Aires, and New York, only one of whom has actually been to Israel, and none of whom even met the singers during the video’s production. Their intention, these impresarios say somewhat vaguely, was to fight preconceived notions that Israel is a sad and scary place.
“It’s not a song in favor of Israel,” said Gastón Cleiman, an advertising man in Buenos Aires who wrote the song’s lyrics and who, along with Sebastian Muller, dreamed up the idea. “It’s a song against prejudice.” Cleiman is freelancer; Muller works for an interactive firm in Madrid whose clients include Nike and Coca-Cola. Both men swear the project was their own initiative, with neither official money nor messaging. The music was written by Gaby Kerpel, another Argentine Jew, who also scored De La Guarda and Fuerza Bruta and is part of a Latin electronic collective known as Zizek and performs reinterpreted Colombian cumbia under the alter ego King Coyo, and the video was directed by Picky Talarico, better known for directing Latin mega-stars’ videos and high-profile commercials.
It started with Muller and Cleiman, who were channeling their mutual obsession with the millions-strong YouTube sensations Wendy (who, at 8, recorded sugary-voiced videos about her thirst for breast milk and beer), La Tigresa (a surgically enhanced hairdresser from the Peruvian Amazon fond of leopard print and reborn as a singer at 65), and Delfín, an amiable but stone-faced Ecuadorean whose first rise to his feet in indignation had been for a disco-beat ode to 9/11.
“One sees them and is seduced,” Cleiman said, speaking in Spanish. “These are things upon which you cannot force reason, because then surely you will find defects. But the truth is, you cannot stop watching them.”
“I feel they are doing something new that relies on authenticity,” Muller, who studied film at Tel Aviv University, told me earnestly, in Hebrew. “They haven’t learned the rules of how to communicate with images. It’s a kind of dogma without consciousness.”
Muller conceded that some of the singers’ fan base was ironic or mocking. “For many people, the combination of authenticity, of pop-culture kitsch and the bizarre is an ugly aesthetic,” he said. “But once you break from your prejudice, you can get to a different approach. Once you break those barriers, you are free.” He likened the process of changing one’s perception of the video—in part because of its pure addictiveness—to changing one’s view of Israel.
That’s the argument he presented to the singers, too. “They also had preconceived notions about Israel,” Muller said. “So, we said, what do they think when people write negative things about them on the Internet?” All three signed on.
This time, parts of the Internet responded with enthusiastiasm, bringing the performers unimagined international fame and tributes. The breathlessly heralded “pasito de Delfín” dance in “En Tus Tierras Bailaré” has spawned homages by someone in an Iron Man costume in a park, by well-off children in a kiddie pool, and by at least one woman in drag.
Sitting in a Manhattan bar, Talarico, the video’s director, recalled how pleased he was when Muller forwarded him YouTube comments complaining that the video looked like the work of a beginner student, and a not very good one.
Talarico’s usual clients are the likes of Julio Iglesias, Nelly Furtado, and Juanes, but when Cleiman called and asked him to recommend a director for “En Tus Tierras Bailaré,” Talarico volunteered himself.
“I have this concept of art as being when you manage to do something without your mind interfering, without being led by preconceptions and prejudices,” he said. “For me, there’s always an opinion, there’s always self-consciousness. I think these people don’t have that. So, I think they’re true artists.”
Cleiman had written the lyrics to Kerpel’s music on a boat to Uruguay, trying to mimic the imperfect rhyming and simplicity of the singers’ previous work. “I’m trying to remember a phrase of Picasso’s—It took many years for me to learn how to paint like a child,” he said.
All of them had labored to make themselves invisible, befitting a video that Alma Guillermoprieto, writing on the New York Review of Books blog, saw as evidence of “the chaotic transformation of a culture that has always had an infinite and joyful capacity for self-invention. This is not outsider but insider art of the deepest sort, forged in a hot-hot crucible, and it is we who stand on the outside, peering wistfully at the screen.” For the Argentines involved, cultural insiders by profession but arguably outsiders as Jews and in a country that has always held itself apart from Latin America, the wistful peering was in awe, at footage shot in Peru and Ecuador by local directors given only the loosest instructions.
“After 200 music videos and 400 commercials, it was like an undoing,” said Talarico. “A deconstruction.”
He intentionally used footage of Israel that defied logic. “If we were doing a corporate video for Israel and we had a voice-over saying, ‘Visit Jerusalem,’ then fine, we use Jerusalem. But this was not like a video of a party where you can see the brand of whiskey.” It’s not clear to him whether the video changed the way anyone thinks about Israel, but it doesn’t really matter that much to him. “With Israel, there’s something in my blood”—he has a Jewish grandparent—“but if someone had approached me to do this video for Afghanistan or Argentina, I would have done it too.”
Meanwhile, the video’s wild success has meant the artists now have mobility beyond the virtual. La Tigresa has already been brought to Buenos Aires by a party promoter, where patrons at a chic restaurant she ate in burst into “En Tus Tierras Bailaré,” where she was stopped in the street for photos and hailed as a gay icon. Kerpel wants to collaborate with Wendy Sulca. Agencies are calling Cleiman and Talarico, seeking to tap this confusing enthusiasm.
And Muller is seeking partners or donors for a worldwide tour that would span Latin America, Miami, New York, and end up in Israel. “That’s our dream and their dream,” he said. “They already know a lot about the country because we showed it to them. And they have a connection. But they want to be there physically.”