* the press kit includes a press release for the SMF CD Compilation Vol. 1

and the official press release for the 2011 Sephardic Music Festival



 ► PHOTOS FROM PAST FESTIVALS: SMF 2014 // SMF 2013 // SMF 2012 // SMF 2011 // SMF 2010 // SMF 2009 // SMF 2008 // SMF 2007 // SMF 2006 // SMF 2005


“This Hanukkah fest wants to school us in Jewish music—and not just your grandpa’s klez.” – Time Out NY

“eclectic lineup of traditional and contemporary artists, including many dedicated to fusing disparate sounds or bridging new and old.” – The NY Times

“Thanks to events like the Sephardic Music Festival, the sounds of Sephardic Jewry are at last beginning to get their due.” – The Forward

“For most New Yorkers, “Jewish music” means klezmer: plaintive fiddles, wailing clarinets and other vestiges of a largely vanished Eastern European culture. But at the Sephardic Music Festival, a New York City tradition…, the world of Jewish music gets explored from an entirely different angle, focusing on the aural legacy of Jewish communities from Spain and the Muslim world.” – The Jerusalem Post

“Our Hannukkah-side suggestion is the annual Sephardic Music Festival…look at this festival as the un-Ashkenazi festival.” – National Public Radio, WNYC

“In 1942, Columbus sailed the ocean blue – and Spain and Portugal cast out their native Jews, now known as Sepharadim. Some of those exiled folks picked up Balkan rhythms and Middle Eastern percussion in their new homes, adding global influence to existing Sephardic sounds. This five-day fest focuses on that musical tradition and history, with a concert that fuses Iberian staples with tango, a story slam invoking diasporic trials and dozens of international bands and solo performers reinterpreting centuries-old folk tunes.” Time Out


THE NY TIMES feature on the Sephardic Music Festival & Erez Safar

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL feature on the Sephardic Music Festival & Erez Safar

LA WEEKLY feature on the Sephardic Music Festival with Producer, Erez Safar a.k.a. Diwon on the cover of its event section

JEWISH JOURNAL feature story and interview on the Sephardic Music Festival

TIME OUT LA feature on the Sephardic Music Festival Teaser

TIME OUT NY feature on the Sephardic Music Festival

YNET, ISRAEL’S NEWSWIRE writes a feature on SMF and its CD Compilation (click here)

BROOKLYN VEGAN 2013 feature on the festival, its opening night with Moshav and the music video we produced with Moshav and Matisyahu!

TIMES OF ISRAEL feature on SMF founder, Erez Safar

NPR/WNYC feature on Nuriya Sephardic Music Festvial’s opening night headliner

CHANNEL 11 Morning Show with Kosha Dillz freestylin about SMF

WALL STREET JOURNAL feature on the Sephardic Music Festival

THE JEWISH WEEK feature on the Sephardic Music Festival

New York Magazine feature.

Brooklyn Vegan feature.

FILM ANNEX feature

JSPACE interviews SMF producer, Erez Safar

BLUE PRINT Miki Gavrielov and SMF feature.




TABLET MAGAZINE’S feature podcast on SMF & its CD Compilation

TIME OUT will be featuring SMF in their “Own this City” (1st time / 2nd time) section two weeks in a row and list SMF as “101 Things to do in Winter” two weeks in a row, both in print and on web.

URB MAGAZINE features SMF’s closing party

FORWARD SMF Compilation CD Review

Brooklyn Vegan hearts SMF

Forward reviews our Artrave & Fashion show

THE JEWISH WEEK feature on SMF will be in their Friday paper (Nov 26th), be on the look out.

WBAI 99.5FM features SMF & Asefa on the Beyond the Pale program. Listen on Nov 28th 12-1pm

BLUE PRINT feature/interview on SMF with founder and bands

WFMU will feature guest DJ Samuel Thomas of the Sephardic Music Fest on Dec 4th from 6-9pm

NY POST’S SUNDAY EDITION (12.13.09) includes a feature article/2 page spread on the festival, its bands, its goals and the founder himself, Erez Safar.

(click to view page 1) / (click to view page 2)

YEDIOT ACHRONOT previews the festival and Electro Morocco’s upcoming performance at Joe’s Pub (scroll down to view)

THE JEWISH WEEK on the festival & Electro Morocco (click to view)

Pharaoh’s Daughter and SMF on WFMU (click to listen)

YNET announces the fest (click to view)

SMF on CKUT 90.3 FM (click for info)

THE VILLAGE VOICE drops the info (click to view)

Must See New York

Jewlicious big ups the Festival (click to view)

JEWISH JOURNAL profile’s Diwon and his SMF (click to view)

NY TIMES shouts out the Shemspeed and the festival (click to view)

NEW YORKER Previews the Fest (scroll down to view)

THE FORWARD’S Review (click to view)

VILLAGE VOICE/SMF ticket giveaway (click to enter)

YEDIOT ACHRONOT previews the festival and Electro Morocco’s upcoming performance at Joe’s Pub (scroll down to view)


LA Weekly front page of the events section! Article title, “Sing, O Israel”:
The way most American’s perceive traditional Jewish culture is defined by the Ashkenazi, who originally immigrated from central and eastern Europe, and to comprise the majority of Jewish immigrants in the United States. By contrast, the Sephardim came from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, The Middle East and Central Asia, and their culture is fairly different from that of their Ashkenazi cousins. Instead of Yiddish they speak Ladino, and instead of bagels, they eat burkes. Rather than klezmer music, Sephardic styles reflect roots in a range of musical traditions found along the Mediterranean. After 9 years in New York, The Sephardic Music Festival kicks off its West Coast debut with Sunday’s Sephardic World Arts Day, which features 9 workshops. Learn everything from olive-curing to jewelry making before catching a performance by James Brown meets Yemenite band, Yemen Blues. The festival features a jam-packed line-up of both established and up and coming performers, including the Ladino songstress Sarah Aroeste. Full schedule at

click to view

The Forward:


for the culture junkie, a Web site showcasing a variety of hip Jewish music from around the world, sponsors this weeklong festival of Sephardic music and culture. Events will be held all over the city and will represent a wide range of music and approaches, from an audience-interactive panel discussion at the Center for Jewish History, to Ladino Night at The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, to a performance by Hasidic hip-hop sensation Matisyahu at the nightclub Webster Hall.

Runs from December 12 to December 19, at locations around New York City; prices range from $10 to $20;”


On Yair Dalal & The SMF – “Dalal’s melody was utterly unfamiliar: a simple infusion of the exotic, and, like the entire festival, a simple reminder of how, in the right hands, the exotic can become extraordinary.”

WFMU Says:

Basya Schechter and Pharaoh’s Daughter sublimely conjure Judeo-Arab-Mediterranean musical concoctions. Their FMU session is a tune-up for a December 16 gig at the Knitting Factory Brooklyn – part of the annual Hannukah-sync’ed multi-venue Sephardic Musical Festival.

LA Weekly features the first LA Sephardic Music Festival
diwon in LA WEEKLY

The NY TIMES features the Sephardic Music Festival in their Arts & Leisure weekend edition!

Wall Street Journals Feature on SMF 2012

Time Out New York’s feature on SMF 2013

Yediot Achronot features the Festival in their weekend edition!


JPost features a 2 page spread on SMF 2009 in Sundays NY Post!:


Aural legacy of the Jewish East

The fifth Sephardic Music Festival gets underway, with an exlectic mix of performances set for various venues


For most New Yorkers, “Jewish music” means klezmer: plaintive fiddles, wailing clarinets and other vestiges of a largely vanished Eastern European culture.

But at the Sephardic Music Festival, a New York City tradition that last night entered its fifth year, the world of Jewish music gets explored from an entirely different angle, focusing on the aural legacy of Jewish communities from Spain and the Muslim world.

Kicking off yesterday (DEC 12) at the 92nd Street Y in Tribeca, this year’s line-up will stretch across seven nights of programming, with highlights drawing on the traditional sounds of Iraq, Yemen and other distant communities. Unfolding at venues including Webster Hall, Joe’s Pub and Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory, performances at the annual Hanukka series will also mix in contemporary elements from a variety of other musical genres – including the reggae of the Hasidic performer Matisyahu and club-ready rhythms from local rappers.

“The idea of the festival is to raise awareness about Sephardic culture and the groups who are performing it,” says festival founder Erez Safar, a New York-based musician and producer who performs under the name Diwon. “It turns people on to different bands and sounds.”

Showcasing musicians from Israel and the New York area, the festival will open with a concert by Smadar Levi, a Sederot native who draws on her family’s Moroccan heritage as she sings in Hebrew, Ladino and Arabic. She’ll be joined at the show by the Sarah Aroeste Band, a group that also strives to preserve Ladino – a Spanish-Hebrew hybrid that developed in pre-Inquisition Spain – with the help of rock, funk and jazz elements. Rounding out the mix for the evening is Galeet Dardashti, a New York transplant from Texas who comes from a line of Jewish musicians from Iran.

Depending on the show they attend, festival-goers may hear a relatively traditional mix of Middle Eastern sounds, though other performances will combine those sounds with additional styles.

In his own music, Safar, who says he was inspired to start the festival after seeing klezmer’s “resurgence” among young New Yorkers, combines electro hip-hop and Yemenite sounds, occasionally mixing in Moroccan Jewish and Jamaican dancehall elements as well. (In perhaps his most novel experiment, the musician remixes the Friday night song “Lecha Dodi” with “Right Now (Na Na Na),” the Top 10 single by the Senegalese-American hitmaker Akon.)

While groups like Pharaoh’s Daughter and Electro Morocco have gained a New York City following with their Sephardic-flavored sounds – both bands will also perform at the festival – the genre has yet to develop its own “scene,” although Safar says that “pockets” of fan support continue to emerge. The festival seeks to boost that enthusiasm while also exposing new listeners to the style. Several thousand music enthusiasts have attended festival concerts in recent years, and Safar estimates that 1,000 will turn out for the biggest show planned for the 2009 event.

That concert, interestingly, will be headlined not by a Sephardic performer but by Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae star who became one of this decade’s more unlikely pop breakthroughs with his Top 40 hit “King Without a Crown.” The December 14 show, scheduled at the Lower East Side’s Webster Hall, will match the former yeshiva student with Diwon, who will add Sephardic elements to the performance through his dance-friendly remixes. For listeners drawn to the concert because of Matisyahu, the Sephardic music might prove a small revelation of its own – or so it is hoped.

With one evening devoted strictly to Ladino music, the festival will also offer an academic look at Jewish music through its Sephardic Scholar Series. The joint performance and discussion, another festival highlight, will showcase Ladino/flamenco duo Aviva and Dan, ethnomusicologist Samuel R. Thomas and filmmaker Lisa Katzman.

See below for press on the past years.

4th Annual Sephardic Music Festival in the Daily News highlighting the Opening Night Artist, Sarah Aroeste

(click here to view)

Time Out NY Feature and Hightlight the SMF, check newstands December 18th!!

“Sephardic Music Festival

This Hanukkah fest wants to school us in Jewish music—and not just your grandpa’s klez. Sets include Yemenite music mixed with hip-hop by Diwon, North African and Middle Eastern beats from Electro Morocco, folk-rock by Pharaoh’s Daughter and Balkan-jazz orchestral arrangements by Anistar. Various locations (sephardicmusic Sun 21–Sun 28, prices vary. Survival tip: “Check the website for surprise guests,” says festival founder Erez Safar.”

(click here to view)

NPR – WNYC Dec 17th Morning Edition

write up on WNYC website below:

Our Hannukkah-side suggestion is the annual Sephardic Music Festival curated by NY Sephardic DJ / musician / electronica artist Erez Safar a/k/a Diwon. The festival coincides with that not quite high holiday, December 21-28.

What is Sephardic culture? The Sephardic Jews most purely are those who trace their roots to the Iberian peninsula before Jews were expelled by Spain in 1492. But of course once they were expelled they spread out, to the Middle East, Africa, Asia etc., and the lines blur between those with direct links to pre-expulsion Spain and Jews simply from the places the Iberian Jews wound up.

Another way to look at this festival is as the un-Ashkenazi festival. (Ashkenazi being the Jews of Eastern European roots who are the majority Jewish population in New York.) With, um, a few Ashkenazi ringers among the musicians for sure – but NOT a whole lotta klezmer which of course is the Ashkenazi go-to party music.

While there isn’t exactly a Sephardic music “scene” in New York, there are many artists either from Sephardic backgrounds, or who have chosen to explore Sephardic themes in different ways within their music. The idea of this festival is to raise public awareness about this minority-within-a-minority. And of course put on some good shows.

And in doing so there is quite a range of music. From the bombastic “Hasidic Hendrix” Yossi Piamenta – now that’s a Jewish wedding!

…to the more sublime Sarah Aroeste, whose specialty is to sing in the ancient Ladino language of the Iberian Jews:

But you see the point of the festival is not really to make one specific musical point – there’s a wide range. But the emphasis will be on groups operating in the Sephardic realm and by extension something a little different from the usual klez / East European orientation of Jewish music in New York.

One project that’s especially noted to for its academic, historical / research based approach to the music is Asefa. The group is led by Samuel Thomas, a New York-based musician and ethnomusicologist of Moroccan-Sephardic heritage. In addition to performing at the festival, Thomas will curate a concert and discussion at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th St on Sunday afternoon Dec. 21 featuring two of the more purely Sephardic groups in the festival: The Victor Esses Tarab Ensemble, of Syrian Jewish background; and Elie Massias Flamenco-Ladino. Thomas has a website dedicated to his musical explorations: “Jewish Awareness Through Music“.

Thomas told me that for him, perhaps the strongest way to create musical work with a true Sephardic root is through the texts: Through links to the work of certain poets of Sephardic Spain who were active (of course) before the Jews were expelled at the end of the 15th century. So he bases many of his texts on surviving texts from those poets, some going back as far as 1000 years – or, texts from poets after that period from places the Sephardim moved to, like North Africa, who followed the stylistic guidelines of those poets. But he makes musical connections too – for instance by incorporating elements of Moroccan Gnawa music. Jews and Gnawa rubbed shoulders in Morocco generations ago much like Jews and Roma did in Eastern Europe. Below you can see (well, barely – but definitely you can hear) Asefa exploring the Gnawa-Jewish musical connection.

The Hannukkah peg of the Sephardic festival provides a special bonus: Something to do on Christmas Eve! The star-studded “Midnight Mess”, which will be the first public event at the City Winery, 155 Varick St. Featured on the bill: Anthony Coleman’s Sephardic Tinge, Todd Barry, Leah Siegal, Jackie Hoffman, Diwon, and Rebetzin Hadassah Gross.


NEXTBOOK writes up the Sephardic Scholar Series

(click here to view)

Brooklyn Vegan writes SMF up

(click here to view)

The Jerusalem Post

Spreading the Hanukka spirit

– Ben Jacobson, Dec. 18, 2006

Cultural programming aimed at young, with-it Jews has only grown more sophisticated since the inaugural Matzo Ball, and other Hanukka-inspired events are no exception. For the entirety of late December 2006, Jewish population centers around North America are being taken over by a myriad of nightlife options targeting Jewish residents in their 20s. Most of the parties are music-oriented, but all are aimed at diversifying each city’s cultural offerings during a season dominated by Christmas.

One such event is the second annual Sephardic Music Festival, a New York City event being planned and produced by Modular Moods, a record label at the forefront of Jewish progressive jazz and electronic music. The organization has high hopes for the crossover potential of festival performer Y-Love, an African-American Jew who raps in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and Yiddish. Y-Love will take the stage along with ethnic groove band Pharaoh’s Daughter for the festival’s kickoff event, while performers at the festival’s other shows include Jerusalem hip hop act Hadag Nachash, piyut jammers Asefa, Ladino diva Sarah Aroeste, social action balladeer Aliza Hava and Connecticut’s Afro Semitic Experience.

Balancing The Jewish Musical Scales

Sephardic Music Festival promoter pushing the Mizrahi sound.

– George Robinson

Despite the best efforts of music programmers, record labels and critics, when the vast majority of casual listeners hear the phrase “Jewish music,” they respond, “Oh, you mean klezmer, right?”

Not always, Erez a.k.a. dj handler would reply, emphatically.

Handler, better known as DJ Handler, the head of Modular Moods Records and a force in Jewish hip-hop, has made it a veritable one-man crusade “to take over the entire Ashkenazi consciousness that people associate with Jewish music and balance it out with Sephardic music.”

His lastest broadside in the campaign is the Second Annual Sephardic Music Festival, which kicks off a week of concerts, parties and dances on Saturday evening, Dec. 16.

From its earliest planning stages, Handler had always intended that last year’s event would be the first of many. “It was always promoted as the ‘first annual,’” he reminds his interlocutor.

He comes by his love of Sephardic and Yemenite music naturally. His mother is a Yemenite Jew and when the family was in Israel, he was taken to Yemenite synagogues regularly, where he fell in love with the sinuous modes of Mizrahi music.

“I was always trying to find recordings of Yemenite Jewish music and set them to beats,” he says. “And when you do that, it works really well. But I wanted to share these musics with more people, and the festival was a way to get a lot of this culture out there on a grand scale.”

The first event was an ambitious launch that coincided with Chanukah, and featured such high-powered acts as Pharaoh’s Daughter, Sarah Aroeste, Divahn and Modular Moods artist Y-Love. Much to Handler’s delight, the festival was a huge success.

“Last year was amazing,” he says gleefully. “Everybody wrote about it and except for one event, everything was all standing room only or sold out. I didn’t expect that. You could feel it was something big by the way people reacted.”

Needless to say, he’s hoping for more of the same this year. The event will again fill the eight nights of Chanukah and features several of last year’s faves as well as the Israeli hip-hop group Hadag Nahash, jazz diva Ayelet Rose Gottlieb and the brilliant song interpreter Ramon Tasat.

“I always try to present something new,” Handler says. “What I’m trying to do is to create a family atmosphere for the musicians, getting Ashkenazi musicians involved with the Sephardic traditions, too. For example, the concert ‘The Women of Tzadik,’ which was put together by John Zorn, features Basya Schechter, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb and Jewlia Eisenberg — they’re Ashkenazi artists all playing Sephardic music.”

He quickly notes that Schechter is actually half-Sephardic and adds, “It enriches the mix to have these Ashkenazi musicians responding to the Sephardic traditions.”

The Second Annual Sephardic Music Festival opens on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 8 p.m. with Y-Love, Pharaoh’s Daughter and special guests, at Makor (35 W. 67th St.); for the entire schedule and ticket information, go to


The Village Voice previews the Sephardic Music festival, highlighting two artists; “…rapper Y-Love, a local Black convert to the mystical Bostoner sect of Orthodox Judaism, who spits verse in Aramaic…Kippah-wearing producer dj handler, spins in Lower East Side clubs by night and, by day, produces Jewish-infused hip hop, electronica, and jazz for his Modular Moods label.”

“Sarah Aroeste Band, Smadar, Pharaoh’s Daughter (Tuesday) Taking part in the Sephardic Music Festival, Sarah Aroeste’s band plays “Ladino rock,” with lyrics in the Castilian Spanish developed by Spanish Jews after 1492. Born in Israel to a Moroccan family, Smadar plays sings in five languages and incorporates accordion, Turkish clarinet, bass, drums and darbuka. They are joined by the jazzy klezmer group Pharaoh’s Daughter…oel Ben Simhon and Sultana Ensemble, Divahn (Wednesday) The Israeli-born Moroccan vocalist and oudist Yoel Ben-Simhon and his Sultana Ensemble (playing here as part of this week’s Sephardic Music Festival) combine original arrangements and traditional music from the Jewish Sephardic and Arabic cultures. The all-woman group Divahn, featuring Galeet Dardashti on lead vocals, finds inspiration in music and poetry from 19th-century Persia as well as the Ashkenazi cantorial tradition.” NY Times, Sinagra

“Heeb Magazine takes o ver Happy Valley to help kick off the first annual Sephardic Music Festival, which aims to increase awareness of and interest in Sephardic culture. If that all sounds a bit to highfalutin don’t worry; Tonight’s going to be a good old fashioned hoedown with hip hopper Y-Love and DJs handler, Blast Crises, Ahmi and Chromeo’s Dave providing a wide-range of rhythms. Go-go action adds to the appeal.” – Time Out (critic’s pic)

“Sephardic Music Festival. With this party/festival, Happy Valley might be taking over Adam Sandler’s role as champion of those who light the menorah…” – Paper Mag

“SEPHARDIC SOUNDS The New York Sephardic Music Festival welcomes the Sara Aroeste Band, which fuses Latino folk music with contemporary sounds (8 p.m.); Pharaoh’s Daughter, which blends Jewish spiritual music with world-beat sounds (9 p.m.), and Smadar, a six-piece group composed of musicians from Turkey, France, Bulgaria, and Israel performing music in Spanish, Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew.” – NY Sun

“On the third night of Hanukkah, Makor’s Sephardic Music Festival brings in three contemporary Jewish bands, but the highlight is Pharaoh’s Daughter—an act blending Middle Eastern and African music with Jewish spirituality.” – NewYorkMetro

“The professorial downtown keyboard master’s projects range from explorations of ethnic themes (Sephardic Tinge) to examinations of ethnic angst (Selfhaters). Tonight is part of The NY Sephardic Music Festival….Uri Caine with Ben Perowsky Embracing everything from jazz to modern classical to electronics to klezmer, Uri Caine is one of the most forward-thinking keyboardists of recent times. –

“If you aren’t sitting around the Christmas tree, maybe you want to get your dance on with a little Israeli Hip-Hop. Y-Love takes the stage as DJ Equal, Jake Break, and DJ Handler spin some tunes as part of the Sephardic Music Festival. FreeNYC points out that “the boys from Modular Moods provide the back drop as Y-Love drops Talmudic rhymes in English, Arabic, Yiddish, and Hebrew.” –

Chavlaz. As part of the ongoing Sephardic Music Festival,Sin Sin’s upstairs Leopard Lounge hosts an evening of Israeli hip hop with Y-Love on the mike and Modular Moods’ Jake Break and dj handler along with DJ Equal, schlepping their record boxes into the booth.” – Time Out (critic’s pic)

“Sephardic Music Festival. Raquy Danziger – an american woman who has mastered the art of Middle Eastern drumming – is backed by the electric bass, synthesizer and guitar of her band, the Cavemen. Guitarist Madof leads a taut, fluid improvising trio that draws on Jewish tradition but takes its musical leads from Jim Hall and Blood Ulmer” – Time Out (critic’s pic)

“Sephardic Music Festival. Basya Schechter, frontwoman of Pharaoh’s Daughter, takes the niggunim (Jewish melodies) from her Sabbath dinner table and mixes them with electronica, snatches of spoken word, orchestral swells, and polyrhythms from Turkey, Israel and West Africa” – Time Out (critic’s pic)

“Sephardic Music Festival. Be right up close when the artists on the East-West bill – led by composer and multiinstrumentalist Yoel

Ben Simhon- explore the music of the Jewish and Arabic cultures.” – Time Out (critic’s pic)

“Set the New Year of Fire. Makor is rolling out poetry slams, a film (James Cagney in White Heat), cartoons and Frank London’s KlezmerAll Stars to celeberate the double-whammy holiday (the 31st is the seventh night of Hanukkah). Balagan Boogaloo ushers in the new year, mixing baile funk, New Mediterannio, bhangra, and Afrobeat.” – Time Out (critics pic)


The ‘Exotic’ Jewish Music

by George Robinson


Looking for an edgier sound at this year’s Sephardic Music Festival.

In a way, you might say that by staging his annual Sephardic Music Festival in New York City, Erez Shudnow, better known as dj handler, is paying back an old debt.

“My mom is Yemenite and my grandmother came from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Yemen,” he explained in an e-mail while preparing for the third annual installment of the event, which begins on Dec. 4 at various venues throughout the city. “I have been very influenced by their culture, especially sitting in synagogue listening to the hypnotic prayers which sounded more like meditative mantras.  The meter mesmerized me and I always wanted to replicate it in my music.”

He started out by doing Yemenite-based mixes, trying to get the message out that Ladino is

a dying language and that Yemenite and other Sephardic music are  underappreciated, particularly as the klezmer revival has helped to increase awareness of Yiddish.

“I thought the best way to get the most attention to the culture would be to throw a festival instead of a couple shows,” he wrote. “I wanted Sephardic culture not only to be seen as beautiful, but also as hip and fresh.”

There is another factor at play in the decision to stage a Sephardic music festival, he added.

“I think people are very intrigued by what they find mysterious and I think that a lot of people find Middle Eastern culture mysterious,” handler said. “This is probably why there seems to be more curiosity for a festival like this than, say, a festival called ‘Ashkenazi Music Festival.’ A lot of Jews already have a good idea of what [Ashkenazi] music will sound like, either A: a wedding; or B: calmer. Sephardic is an umbrella term for all the Jewish cultures that are not ‘Ashkenazi/Eastern European,’ which include Yemenite, Ladino, Bukharian … A lot of this is exotic to the general public.”

Or to the Jewish public, for that matter. Despite the success of such Sephardic- and Mizrahi-flavored acts as Pharaoh’s Daughter and Sarah Aroeste (both of whom are performing in the festival this year), the overwhelming majority of Jewish music groups in the marketplace are klezmer or Yiddish in language or musical mood. And handler readily admits that the dominant feature of the Sephardic audience up to now has been its musical conservatism.

“The point for me was to stay away from some of the aspects that make Sephardic music appealing to the older crowd, which totally loses the crowd that won’t start listening to traditional music for another 20 years,” he said.

For an example of the edgier, hip-hop-informed musical mix that he aims for in programming the festival, handler points to a mix tape he compiled, which is available at

“The mix tape blends Michal Cohen, my favorite Yemenite singer, who used to live down the block from me, Yuri Lane doing a Mizrachi beat box, Arabic break beats, Ladino sped up over a Busta Rhymes instrumental and Afro-beat with Yemenite chanting over it,” he explained. “It really draws in people obsessed with the beat into a world where the melodies are probably very unfamiliar but maybe still very comforting.”

This has been a busy year of growth for handler and his various Jewish music enterprises. In addition to the full slate of releases on modular moods, the name of the label he founded, he has started a Jewish music Web site, Not surprisingly, this year’s Sephardic Music Festival is also bigger than its predecessors.

“The Sephardic Festival is a very mixed bag,” he wrote. “This year we put together a night celebrating world music with an emphasis on Sephardic sounds spun by [me] and the Israeli DJ crew Soulico, along with Y-Love on the mic. We bring in an act from Israel every year.  This year we wanted to bring in Shotei Hanevua, but they had just broken up so we brought the group that came out of Shotei Haneuva called Pshutei Ha’am.”

The festival is both a labor of love and an act of collaboration between many New York music presenters.

“The whole festival comes together through a lot of love and collaboration,” handler said. “Brice Rosenbloom [founder of Music Without Borders] always helps out a lot. The guys from Soulfarm who have extended their BB King “first night of Chanukah” gig to us for our Opening Night. It was perfect timing because Consuelo Luz just happens to be in New York at that time.  She lives in New Mexico and has been included on all sorts of compilations ranging from Buddha Bar to Putumayo collections.  We will be featuring her as well as [jazz musician] Ayelet Rose Gottlieb and Sarah Aroeste at the Opening Night BB King show.  The last night of the festival is Pharaoh’s Daughter and Pshutei Ha’am at the Knitting Factory. But for the Brooklyn folks who like staying around there we put together a show at Southpaw with Yossi Piamenta.

Handler concluded, “This year seemed to just fall into place very easily, but that might be because we laid down a nice foundation the first two years with the festival.”

You might say that this installment of handler’s indebtedness to his family and its roots can be marked “paid in full.” n

The Third Annual Sephardic Music Festival will run from Dec. 4-11 at venues all over New York. For information, go to


Trying To Make Sephardic Music as Hip as Klezmer


By Alexander Gelfand

December 23, 2005

Benjamin Cardozo was one. So was Benjamin Disraeli. Some believe that FDR may have been one, at least on his mother’s side. Camille Pissarro, Harold Pinter, Murray Perahia… Sephardic Jews, every one.

And yet, despite their notable achievements throughout the Diaspora, Sephardim have been noticeably absent from the North American Jewish music scene. (In Israel, where Sephardic Jews represent a much larger portion of the population, the situation is far different.) Until recently, you’d have been lucky to find even one Sephardic ensemble for every 10 nouveau klezmer bands on the Jewish music circuit.

But that appears to be changing, thanks to the efforts of people like Erez Shudnow, aka DJ Handler. A turntablist who samples everything from Brazilian baile funk to Yemenite songs and Ashkenazic cantillation, Handler also plays drums with Orthodox avant-klezmer outfit Juez and runs both a music label and a production company. In addition, he’s the driving force behind New York’s first Sephardic Music Festival, scheduled to run during the eight nights of Hanukkah at venues ranging from Mo Pitkin’s to Makor.

Although the term “Sephardic” is often used as a catchall for anyone who isn’t of Ashkenazic descent, it properly denotes those Jews whose origins lie in Spain and Portugal. Following the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, the Sephardim were dispersed throughout North Africa and the Mediterranean, where they continued to speak the various Judaeo-Spanish dialects that had evolved under Moorish influence. They also retained, and continued to develop, their own distinctive cultural practices — including their music, which bears the imprint not only of their earliest surroundings but also of the lands (Greece, Turkey, Morocco) in which they settled. The texts of many traditional Sephardic songs, for example, are cast in Hispanic poetic forms, while Sephardic melodies are often cast in Arabic modes.

While the Sephardic Music Festival will include traditional Sephardic acts like Joe Elias and his Ladino Ensemble, the emphasis will be on contemporary music, from the Sephardic jazz engineered by Anthony Coleman and Uri Caine to the various brands of Sephardic pop and rock performed by Sarah Aroeste, Raquy and the Cavemen, and Pharaoh’s Daughter. There will even be some Mizrahic sounds on offer, most notably from Divahn, an all-female acoustic Sephardic-Mizrahic quartet led by the musician and anthropologist Galeet Dardashti. (Though often lumped together with Sephardim, Mizrahim are in fact a group unto themselves — namely, Middle Eastern and North African Jews who did not make a pit stop in Iberia.) There will also be plenty of hip-hop and dance beats served up by rappers and spinners like Y-Love, Jake Break and Handler himself, all of whom will appear on Israeli Hip Hop Night.

“DJs can do things that musicians can’t,” Handler told the Forward in an interview. A DJ armed with a pile of samples “can introduce things in sort of covert ways,” Handler explained. “You could be playing a hip-hop track and suddenly be playing an Israeli track, and people wouldn’t even know how they got there. As a DJ, you can introduce people to a different culture without losing them.”

One of the central goals of the festival is to increase awareness of Sephardic music among younger audiences, and to make it as hip — and as popular — as modern klezmer. Aroeste, a singer whose grandparents immigrated to America from Salonika, Greece, was herself inspired to form a contemporary Sephardic ensemble after meeting Frank London, one of the leaders of the progressive klezmer movement. Though she studied traditional Sephardic song in Israel, her principle goal is to render the Sephardic tradition more relevant to her own peer group. “I grew up in America, and I’m a young, modern American woman. I love the traditional style, but it’s not necessarily what I feel in my own being,” she told the Forward. “I still make traditional music, but I make it new.” To that end, Aroeste sets a variety of lyrics — some deriving from traditional Hispanic narrative ballads, others of her own design — to pop and rock grooves, while continuing to use traditional Sephardic instruments like hand drums and the ubiquitous Middle Eastern lute known as the oud.

Aroeste sees several reasons for the relatively low profile of Sephardic music in North America, from the insularity of Sephardic communities themselves (“We share our music with each other, but not necessarily with the larger [Jewish] community,” she said) to the overall lack of Sephardic content in Jewish education. Certainly, Israeli children are far more likely to hear Sephardic or Mizrahic music than kids in the Diaspora — “America is located half a globe away from the Middle East, and most of the Sephardic music is happening in synagogues and [local] communities,” said New York-based, Israeli-born percussionist Tomer Tzur — and that’s unlikely to change overnight. But thanks to events like the Sephardic Music Festival, the sounds of Sephardic Jewry are at last beginning to get their due. “Our music,” Aroeste said, “is starting to get on the radar screen.”