January 22, 2019

Groove, dance or chill at Sephardic Music Festival

Attendees should expect the eclectic at the 11th annual Sephardic Music Festival (SMF), which this month comes to Los Angeles for a second consecutive year. The event will feature music from across the traditionally Sephardic terrain, as well as a multimedia candlelighting event, an eight-minute Chanukah mix-tape and … a klezmer musician?

“I know, that’s going to sound like kryptonite for a Sephardic festival,” said Erez Safar, the festival’s producer and founder. “But I’ve always wanted to work with [the band] Klezmer Juice, and they don’t typically get booked at a Sephardic festival. They’ll be performing under the name Electrik Sabra Sefarad. I’m really excited about it.”

And if you think Safar is excited, the energy of Klezmer Juice/Electrik Sabra Sefarad’s Gustavo Bulgach practically blasts through the phone as he recounts his wish to “get everybody to dance and to groove to the rhythms, not sit down and watch us play.” 

“We’ll bring so many titles to the table. Basically, we’ll be grooving on the Sepharad beat,” Bulgach says of the set he plans for the festival’s Sephardic Remix night Dec. 10. “We are going to spin some new re-creations of old music. We’ll be working in the middle of Chanukah, so we’ll do a Middle Eastern Chanukah medley.”

After making the festival a success for nine years in New York, Safar has earned the right to program adventurously. For the festival’s second year in Los Angeles, which includes nearly a dozen performers spread over four nights starting Dec. 9, Safar plans to mix up things. 

Literally. The “Sephardic Remix Night” is designed to fuse the music of East and West. Performing as DJ Diwon, Safar will mix Yemenite music with electro hip-hop and cinematic psychedelia. Two live bands will combine musical styles from multicultural locales, and celebrity food blogger Nina Safar (Erez Safar’s wife) will “remix” traditional dishes such as potato latkes with Sephardic flavors to create new delights. 

Festivalgoers not in a remixing mood can hunker down with the L.A.-based Israeli-American rock group Moshav, which performs Dec. 12. Moshav is an SMF returnee. For past festivals, Safar has lined up such artists as Yemen Blues, Yair Dalal, Matisyahu, Asefa and Asaf Avidan.

Tracing its root to the Jews of medieval Spain, Sephardic music is often composed both in Hebrew and in the Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino. SMF bills itself as the first music festival to focus exclusively on the culture of the Jewish communities of Spain, Portugal, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. 

Safar’s own Sephardic roots are traceable to Yemen via his mother’s family. Although he has been drawn to the musical traditions of the Middle East, Safar has long embraced fusion in his work. He began as a DJ and radio personality at the University of Maryland and eventually created the Jewish record labels Shemspeed and Modular Moods. Jazz and klezmer submissions were plentiful in his early producing days, but Middle Eastern and Sephardic music were scarce. Safar developed the SMF as much for his own research purposes as to bring exposure to emerging artists.

“I discovered a ton of bands,” Safar said. “By using the term ‘Sephardic’ instead of, say, the Jewish Music Festival, we gave the festival this esoteric quality. People were interested outside of feeling like it was just a Jewish community festival.” 

The festival drew strong crowds and attention from publications including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Over the ensuing years, the programming has become increasingly diverse, and Safar has rarely shied away from trying new things. In another shake-up from previous years, the festival will open with an acoustic evening titled “Shedding Light on Mizrahi Remembrance Day.” In partnership with the Israeli Consulate, 30 Years After and Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), SMF will present music to honor Arab and Iranian Jewish refugees who were expelled from their homelands. 

The evening will feature a performance by electro-blues band Automatic Toys. The band’s upcoming 2016 album contains tracks that deal with the plight of refugees and, according to lead singer Nachum Peterseil, the band’s “City of Refuge” set at the SMF will tap into many of those issues.

“I grew up in Israel, and the Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni influences are huge,” said Peterseil, who will be performing songs in Hebrew and Arabic. “At the end of the day, Jewish and Arabic people are way more similar than not. We have way more musical doorways than probably any other nation[s] that are parallel, and I want to tap into that.” 

The festival concludes Dec. 14 at the Mint, where SMF takes over Hunnypot Live. Kosha Dillz and Diwon will perform a special holiday and SMF rendition of some of their tracks and debut their eight-minute mix-tape for Chanukah. The evening will also include sets by Hot Tub Johnnie, Cameron Parkins, Barrie and the Stars, The Milky Way and Tropical Nasty. 

“The vibe almost feels like a house party,” Safar said of the festival. “The way we set things up and the performers and venues we choose, it’s definitely more chill and fun.” 

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