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Project Runway, Sephardic Style

Project Runway, Sephardic Style

Annual Sephardic Music Festival branches out with art rave, fashion show.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

The phone is ringing. There is a new CD to promote. There are the usual last-minute changes in the Sephardic Music Festival to be arranged. A new music video has to be shot this week. A fresh pot of coffee needs to be brewed.

And the baby is crying.

Welcome to the world of Erez Safar, aka Diwon, director of Shemspeed Music, founder and producer of the Sephardic Music Festival, one of the major players in Jewish hip-hop and, for the past three-and-a-half months, new father.

Even though this year’s edition of the festival begins Dec. 1 — with a new focus on visual art and fashion — and the first CD of highlights from past versions has just come out, Safar’s first task is to feed his son, Dovi. Then he will call back the journalist who was on the phone and turn his attention back to the music that, until fatherhood beckoned, was one of his principal realities.

“When you’re single you have this strong grind and that’s the whole thing, but when you get married and have a kid there are more important things,” the 31-year-old producer/DJ says with a laugh. “You have to balance all that. The mornings I spend with him, so I’m balancing taking care of him and working. I still don’t get to bed ‘til 4 a.m.”

That schedule is in no small part a necessity of the pop music business. Shemspeed produces club dates and dances, in addition to handling the label’s many recording artists (including Safar himself, as Diwon). Scouting new talent requires a lot of club time, too.

“I knew I could never have a 9-to-5 [job],” he says with a shrug. “When I moved to New York I knew this was the only option — to make something that’s sustainable and keeps getting bigger.”

That is the nature of the business but, as he quickly notes, the Sephardic festival is “a little different.”

He says earnestly, “This is about preserving the cultures and raising awareness. Ashkenazi culture got rejuvenated [through the klezmer revival], and now it’s happening in all these different styles, too. There is a wide range of [Sephardic musical cultures] and younger people are [involved in preserving] all of them. A lot of the music isn’t mainstream; you won’t hear it on the radio. But it is music we’re passionate about.”

On the other hand, the Sephardic music festival, about to offer its sixth edition, has also continued to grow and, given New York City as its primary location, is probably sustainable in the long-term too.

“New York is the best place to have started it,” Safar says. “There are so many Israeli and Sephardic musicians here. But our next step is to take it out on the road. We want to work with local talent, with local Jewish nonprofits. This event is all about collaboration, and we want to be able to replicate that in different cities. We’re bringing it to L.A. and we’re talking about Chicago, Seattle and maybe others.”

The CD is a big step in that direction.

“I don’t know if we’re going to do this every year,” he says warily. However, the set is labeled Volume 1, so it’s safe to assume that more will follow.

The musicians represented are an eclectic but vivid crew, much like the festival itself: Sarah Aroeste, Galeet Dardashti, Electro Morocco, Yasmin Levy, Yair Dalal, DeScribe and Matisyahu, among others.

“It’s exciting to have all these different styles and drastically different genres in one place,” Safar says. “People will hear things they never imagined coming from the Jewish world.”

The festival itself has been growing by small increments. Keeping it confined to the eight days of Chanukah has proven a shrewd choice, giving the event an elastic but not infinitely expandable framework with the result that the new gigs are exciting but don’t crowd out old favorites.

This year’s innovation points the festival in a new direction and gives some indication of Safar’s larger intentions. Where the focus in the previous five years was on music, this year’s event adds elements of visual art and fashion with a huge art rave featuring interactive pieces and a fashion show, all taking place in a loft space on the water in Brooklyn’s Industry City.

“We have six or eight colleges involved through their Hillels — artists, models, DJs, rappers,” Safar says. “Next year, I want to add elements that showcase Sephardic writing and food.”

At the very least, he will have his son to remind him when it’s time to eat. n

The Sixth Annual Sephardic Music Festival takes place all over the city from Dec. 1-8. For information and tickets, go to You can also purchase the new CD, “Sephardic Music Festival, Volume 1” at the website.

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