Outsiders Crash Sephardic Music Festival

Outsiders Crash Sephardic Music Festival

Sway Machinery, Zion80 appearances speak to confidence of 8-year-old event.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

With its eighth annual edition kicking off on Dec. 8, it’s safe to say that the Sephardic Music Festival has become a fixture on the end-of-the-year Jewish calendar, so much so that festival founder and producer Erez Safar is totally comfortable including some decidedly non-Sephardic heavy hitters on this year’s lineup. Jeremiah Lockwood and the Sway Machinery and Jon Madof and Zion80 are two of the hottest aggregations parachuting into this year’s festival. Anyone who knows Lockwood and Madof and their divergent musical tastes and influences will not be surprised that each takes a very different approach to the event, embracing their somewhat anomalous status as outsiders in distinct ways.

Although his music is heavily inflected by Delta blues, punk and classical hazonos, among the most primal and emotionally transparent musical forms imaginable, Lockwood has always brought a cerebral quality to it. His cerebral quality is even evident when he replies to a question about his place in a Sephardic music event.

“When I was growing up as an Ashkenazic New Yorker, I heard the term ‘Sephardic’ to connote all Asian and African Jews, somewhat as the term ‘Mizrachi’ is used today,” he wrote in an e-mail last week. “Either one of these terms posits a clear divide between Occidental and Oriental Jews that is both misleading and ahistoric. There has always been deep-seated communication and collaboration between the Jews of various world communities, both on the level of practical and intellectual collaboration and in the spheres of imagination and psychological pull towards distant places and times.”
Lockwood’s own connection to the Sephardic stream of Jewish culture is highly specific.

“The Sephardic influence is very present in my life through the enduring influence of the Kabbalistic masters of the Cordoba Caliphate,” he wrote. “The literary and spiritual innovation of Medieval Spanish Jews resonates in present day Jewish ritual through the countless prayer-poems (piyutim) composed by genius Rabbi-poets that give the texts for much of Cantorial music. Many of The Sway Machinery’s songs have texts written in Medieval Spain. The Sephardic influence is also present in the mystical allegorical language of Kabbalism which permeates all of world Judaism, especially Eastern European Chassidus … this realm of thought undergirds my thinking about life and music.”

By contrast, Madof readily acknowledges that Zion80, his Jewish-Afrobeat fusion, doesn’t really have a strong Sephardic link, while his other band, Rashanim, draws heavily on harmonies and rhythms from that tradition. Nor is he planning anything unusual to create an artificial connection.

“Zion80 will play our usual material, which is Fela Kuti-inspired versions of Shlomo Carlebach’s music with a 13-piece band,” he wrote in an e-mail last week. “There’s nothing explicitly Sephardic about the band, other than the Sephardi influences on Shlomo’s melodies (which in my opinion are fairly minimal). That being said, I think the great thing about playing in the Sephardic Music Festival is that it opens people up to Jewish music that’s not klezmer or cantorial music.”
The range of influences, sounds and styles on display in this year’s festival are so wildly variegated, so redolent of the mash-up ethos of contemporary world music, that you could easily rename the event, as Madof suggested, “The Not-Klezmer Jewish Music Festival.” But, as he also noted, “that’s not such a great name.” What other music festival in New York City can boast a roster that includes Tuvan throat singing, free jazz, African drumming and classical Andalusian romanzas?

Asked who he would go see, given enough time, Madof wrote, “I think … Erez Safar always presents interesting and exciting music and I’d love to be able to check all of it out.”
Lockwood’s answer was rather more specific.

“I’m a punk by profession but a traditionalist by proclivity,” he explained. “For my money I’d be heading over to the Sephardic Scholar Series. That looks like an amazingly beautiful program.”

That event, which takes place on Dec. 10, features the New York Andalus Ensemble, and is a far cry from the postmodern fusions that one finds on many of the programs.

Not that we object to those fusions. On the contrary, as a listener can quickly glean from hearing the two collections of music from previous festivals, available from Shemspeed, the organization producing the event, some of the most vital and joyous sounds in Jewish music today are coming from fusion bands that will be playing there this year, too.

The 8th annual Sephardic Music Festival, produced and presented by Shemspeed, will take place all over town Dec. 8-12. For information and a schedule of events, go to www.sephardicfest.com. While you are there, you can also purchase Sephardic Music Festival, Vols. 1 and 2, available as both CDs and MP3 downloads.

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