December 9, 2009
DJ Diwon Brings Jewish Fusion West
If the photos on Erez Safar’s MySpace page make it seem like he’s busy, that’s because he is. The 30-year-old genre-bridging DJ and multi-instrumentalist, who performs under the name Diwon, is also a producer and CEO of the Jewish indie label Modular Mood Records as well as the founder of New York’s Sephardic Music Festival and Shemspeed.com, a super-site that promotes Jewish concerts and artists.
Safar, formerly known as DJ Handler, is part of a New York-based subculture of deeply spiritual Orthodox Jews in their 20s and 30s who collaborate to create psychedelic dance, hip-hop and reggae. It’s a Jewish jam-rock scene that includes but extends beyond Matisyahu, and among those at its center is Safar, a half-Yemenite, half-Ashkenazi music wunderkind.
Although he produces and records prolifically, Safar struggles to describe his own sound. “I guess throughout all my work, there are always beats, world music and hip-hop,” he said during a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, Nina. “My mom being a Yemenite and my dad being Ashkenazi, [my material] is geared toward traditions. It’s Jewish music, but I’m not trying to convert people. Some of it does have a message, the overriding theme being unity, positivity, diversity.”
Safar has performed with mainstream artists like Lou Reed and DJ Spooky, and was listed among the Forward 50 in 2007. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of the Jewlicious and JconnectLA circles on the West Coast who has heard of him.
“The Jewish music scene, or the resurgence of Jewish music with fusion, which people have been getting into in the last 10 to 15 years, it seems like it’s more of an East Coast thing,” he said.
Safar will bring his blend of Sephardic and Yemenite music, obscure Israeli pop, American hip-hop samples and club beats to the West Coast on Saturday, Dec. 12, for two Chanukah shows — a menorah lighting at Universal CityWalk and then at Honika Electronica, a night of music and comedy at A Cow Jumped Over the Moon in Beverly Hills, which will raise funds for The Jewish Federation’s Fed Up With Hunger campaign.
Safar’s influences are wide ranging. At any given time, he’s listening to Beck, DJ Shadow, John Coltrane, Brazilian music from the ’60s and Miami club sounds. But naming the act he admires most doesn’t require a moment’s thought. “I’ve always been really into the Beastie Boys,” Safar said. “Each album was drastically different, and it seemed like a new movement. They’ll do an instrumental album, a hip-hop rock album ... they are just so weird.”
Safar’s taste for the eclectic could be attributed to his transient upbringing. His father was a Navy chaplain, and the Modern Orthodox family moved from San Diego when he was 1 month old. Safar grew up in temporary homes, enjoying the unconventionality of living in such locales as Italy, Japan and Charleston, S.C.
During college at the University of Maryland, Safar played in a klezmer-punk band called Juez, which he describes as “garage, [really] raw.”
Among his most recent offerings is 2008’s “The Beat Guide to Yiddish,” a free, 25-minute mixtape that taps his Ashkenazic heritage, meshing classical Eastern European arrangements with hip-hop beats, rock drumming and electric-funk guitar.
“At the time, there were Yiddish samples I was checking out that were inspiring me,” Safar said. “When I’m making a mixtape, I’m trying to do something that is classic, use things that are sort of timeless — so you can listen to it a couple years from now and it feels just as relevant, it feels just as fresh.”
As for his newest release, “Dreams in Static,” a collaboration with Dugans, a seasoned guitarist and composer hailing from Texas, Safar has moved into experimenting with cinematic soundscapes, ambient instrumental rock and post-punk. He describes “Dreams, “ which is currently available on his Web site and will be released on iTunes in February, as conjuring up the musical aesthetic of James Bond and “Pulp Fiction.”
“I would love for Quentin Tarantino to say, ‘Whoa, this is amazing, I want you to put this in my next film.’ We actually wrote some of the tracks with Tarantino in mind. But it would be awesome just to have people listen to it,” he said.
Safar sees great potential in the L.A. music scene and is already making plans for a return to Southern California after Dec. 12. Next year, he hopes to make his 5-year-old Sephardic Music Festival a West Coast phenomenon as well.
“I always had it in my mind to expand. I feel like L.A. is a good hub for Jewish music,” he said. “Because there are so many Israelis [in L.A.], there are a good amount of Sephardic musicians who could be a part of the festival.”
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