When Erez Safar started the Sephardic Music Festival in 2005, he was thinking about the future of Sephardic music. Having spent the last decade watching klezmer explode in popularity among artists like the avant-garde composer John Zorn and the Brooklyn punk band Golem, Safar realized klezmer was moving into a brave new future and was leaving its Sephardic counterparts behind. If the annual festival is Safar’s response to that problem, “Sephardic Music Festival Vol. 1,” is the permanent document illuminating a musical movement at a moment of uncertain transformation.
“Klezmer had this hip factor, but that never happened to Sephardic music. So the idea was to have cool different styled Sephardic music,” Safar told the Forward. The 18-track compilation reads like a who’s who of Jewish Middle Eastern sounds. Movement names like Moshav Band, Sarah Aroeste, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Jon Madof and Galeet Dardashti pepper the tracks alongside less familiar figures. The most startling inclusion is a six-minute opener by rock-reggae Hasid Matisyahu. On the track, Matisyahu mostly discards the twisting breathless vocals he built his career on, in favor of softly spoken words over a funky electronic maqam beat. His inclusion indicates the scope of Safar’s Sephardic dream: a pan-ethnic space that draws musically on places as diverse as Morocco and Ibiza.
The compilation does not completely discard traditional sounds in favor of cosmopolitan fusion. Though he acknowledges it has a more modern beat, Safar points out the traditional Moroccan prayer service melody at the heart of Benyamin Brody, Diwon & Dugans’ concluding track, “Yehi Razton.” Still, most tracks pay only lip service to any kind of historical tradition and are much more concerned about looking forward. Electro Morocco’s “Joe Pill” features a pop ready female vocalist and a beat more aligned with hip-hop than Mizrahi music. Its one concession to the project, a Dick Dale-style Middle East riff, wouldn’t sound out of place on top 40 radio stations next to Far East Movement or the Black Eyed Peas.
As usual, Y-Love steals the show when he guest verses on Brody’s “Yalda Metuka,” spitting about half a dozen lines amidst Mizrachi pop (familiar dance choruses punctuated by balladic verses). “Vodka with a red bull / Heart got the wings on it,” he raps. Elsewhere on the album Galeet Dardashti’s opening track from her last album, “The Naming,” is remixed by DJ Vanjee. A pensive melancholic track becomes a club banger by the two-minute mark.
The compilation hems to the contemporary hip-hop, electronica and club music vernacular for a variety of reasons. Beyond trying to acquire a large pop audience, Safar recognizes that exclusively traditional music has had its day in the sun. “Sephardic music was mature and traditional and your parents listened to it, but it’s boring,” he said. His vision for the Sephardic Music Festival is one where he could hand the compilation to a figure like Diplo, a producer who has worked with transnational stars like M.I.A. and Major Lazer and, as Safar describes it, “with no music reference at all he’ll still dig it straight on the music vibe.”
It doesn’t seem like Diplo has heard the music yet and despite favorable coverage the Sephardic Music Festival has yet to take over the world. Still, Safar is hopeful that modern Sephardic music can acquire the cache klezmer has enjoyed for the past few decades. “Maybe what klezmer is to jazz Sephardic is to hip-hop,” he considers. It’s not hard to imagine a number of these tracks on the Billboard Hot 100. Maybe he’s on to something.