For African Jewish performer, life is now a cabaret

As a cabaret performer, Natalie Gamsu incorporates many of her loves, from African music to jazz, blues and disco, into her show. But Gamsu’s act also is clearly a reflection of her roots as a Jew who grew up in southern Africa.

“I feel very Jewish identified,” said Gamsu, who grew up in a small Jewish community in the southwest African country of Namibia.

In fact, Gamsu, who will perform Saturday night at the Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, said her roots in a traditional Jewish family and a small Jewish community run so deep that at one time she considered training as a cantor.

“I love cantorial music and Yiddish music,” said Gamsu by phone from her New York City home. “It does something to me that is inexplicable when I feel it.”

For Gamsu, 38, that feeling dates back to her youth. As Gamsu grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in the town of Windhoek, about 30 to 40 families made up its Jewish community. Most of those Jews were descendants of Eastern European immigrants who saw business opportunities in southern Africa at the turn of the century. Gamsu’s great-grandparents had emigrated from Lithuania and Latvia.

Gamsu’s childhood was very much connected to the Jewish community. The town’s one Orthodox synagogue served as the hub of Jewish activity.

Because Windhoek’s Jewish community was so small, the synagogue usually was led by rabbis from around the world, who would come to the town for a couple of years at a time. One rabbi in particular made an impact on Gamsu.

“He made it fun. He brought bongos into the synagogue, changed a lot of tunes and let us sing in the choir,” she said.

“It was fantastic to be part of the service.”

But as a Jew, Gamsu was still clearly an outsider in Windhoek. It was not unusual, she said, for school teachers to make comments about her being Jewish. At other times, she would have to leave class during Bible lessons.

“I was always the only Jew in the class,” she said.

That changed dramatically when Gamsu was 14 and went to boarding school in South Africa. There, the Jewish community was several hundred thousand strong.

Gamsu also was exposed to a world of Jewish culture much different from the small community she knew in Windhoek.

“I couldn’t believe there were entirely Jewish schools,” she said.

Gamsu stayed in South Africa, eventually attending the University of Cape Town and establishing a career on the South African cabaret circuit.

During that time of the struggle against apartheid, South Africa was a volatile and sometimes dangerous place.

The changes confronting the country hit the arts community, particularly during the early 1980s when performers had to be careful about defining their role in the struggle.

Gamsu faced this, as well. “I wasn’t black,” she said. “I wasn’t a child from a right-wing home. I was white and middle class and liberal, and I didn’t know what my voice was.”

The struggle also took its toll in the Jewish community, she said.

South Africa’s Jewish community started to disperse, leaving the country for more stable places like the United States, Australia and Great Britain. “It’s almost like the diaspora all over again,” Gamsu said.

And in Windhoek, as few as 20 Jews are left today.

Living among growing violence and fear eventually took its toll on Gamsu. That, along with her desire to grow musically and personally, inspired her move to New York in 1992.

Since then, she has been active on the club circuit, has performed in musicals and has won several cabaret awards.

Since moving to the United States, Gamsu has more clearly defined her voice, adding truly American elements, such as Harold Arlen songs, to her performances.

But her act has never strayed far from her roots, incorporating the African music her nanny taught her as child and the Jewish music she heard in Windhoek’s synagogue.

Though Gamsu still maintains close contact with South Africa and with her family members who have since immigrated there, she said the physical distance between herself and her homeland has allowed her to make better sense of her roots.

“I think the distance of leaving Africa has allowed me to feel who I am outside of it,” she said.

Natalie Gamsu will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Marin Jewish Community Center, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Tickets


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