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Jewish Journal

L.A. music fest aims to prove Sephardic culture rocks

by Jonathan Maseng

February 26, 2014 | 4:50 pm

Ravid Kahalani of Yemen Blues. Photo by Zohar Ron

Ravid Kahalani of Yemen Blues. Photo by Zohar Ron

For years, people have asked Erez Safar what it would take to bring his popular New York-based Sephardic Music Festival to Los Angeles. Turns out, all it took was for its creator to move west. A newly minted Angeleno, Safar will debut the Sephardic Music Festival’s Los Angeles edition March 2-11, and he hopes to share the same hip, progressive acts that have made the New York festival such a success.

“Initially, I came out [to L.A. to work] more on the music side, and then I started to just expand,” Safar said.  His company, Bancs Media, does production, branding and PR, and while film licensing opportunities initially lured him to the West Coast, he soon saw an opportunity to work on his passion project as well.

Sephardic music traces its roots to the Jews of medieval Spain and is often composed in Hebrew as well as in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language that was to Sephardic Jews what Yiddish was to Ashkenazim. Safar’s festival has featured many artists who fit squarely into the Sephardic tradition, like Sarah Aroeste, Gerard Edery and the band DeLeon, but it has also headlined artists with more suspect Sephardic credentials, like Matisyahu, Soulfarm and Diwon, which is explained by Safar’s wider definition of Sephardic music — he includes Yemenite, Mizrahi and Persian music, as well. Basically “anything but Ashkenazi” music.

This year’s lineup features Yemen Blues, Asaf Avidan and Aroeste. The variety is all part of Safar’s quest to reach out to audiences who often get less attention. “We’re doing this thing called Shahs of Sinai, which is geared more toward the Persian community,” Safar said, noting that with L.A.’s large Iranian expat community, it was obviously important to reach out to them.

Yemen Blues opens the festival on March 2 at the Luckman Fine Arts Center, at California State University, Los Angeles. Safar first met the group in Las Vegas, where he played with them at a show. “Watching them play, it’s almost like watching James Brown do Moroccan-Jewish music,” Safar said.  He decided that their infectious style and groove would be perfect to kick off the festival.

The final musical act of the festival will be Avidan, on March 8, also at the Luckman. An Israeli superstar with a huge following in Europe, he was a slightly more difficult choice. “He’s the least connected musically to everything,” Safar said, adding that “his specific roots fit the festival.” Although his style is more reminiscent of Janis Joplin than anything that came out of Barcelona or Toledo, and whether Avidan can be counted truly as a Sephardic artist or not, L.A. audiences would be remiss not to see him when he’s in town, considering the fact that he’s opened for the likes of Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Robert Plant over the years.

In between, festival goers can catch Aroeste on March 5 at the Fowler Museum at UCLA.  Aroeste has been a part of the festival since its inception and had nothing but kind words to say about Safar. “He’s helped so many Sephardic artists to get exposure and allow larger audiences to experience what we already know is the wonderful, exciting, sexy, beautiful fabulousness that is Sephardic culture.”

Aroeste’s own interest in Sephardic culture began at an early age. Her grandparents came from the Balkans, from the area known as Salonika, but, like many immigrants, they wanted to assimilate and didn’t pass down many of their traditions to the younger generation. “I felt this frustration, because on the one hand, I was really proud of this seemingly exotic side of my family, and at the same time, I wanted — I craved — to know more, and I couldn’t find the answers I was looking for,” Aroeste said.

While in Israel studying music, she fell in love with Ladino music and has been sharing that love with audiences for nearly 15 years. “I decided to dedicate my life to learning more about it and making sure this music and this whole culture gets exposed more.”  

Aroeste finds the lack of general Jewish knowledge about Sephardim distressing.  “Sephardic Jews come from Spain ... and Sephardic Jews eat rice on Passover,” she said.  “Those are the two things people seem to know about us.

“My mantra is ‘Ladino rocks,’ and I’d expand that to say Sephardic culture rocks,” Aroeste said. “To preserve a culture, we must also be looking forward, and we need to be creating new material and new culture to make sure that it lives on.”

In addition to the three concerts, there will also be the Shahs of Sinai event celebrating Persian culture at Cafe Dahab, a Sephardic Story Slam at the Bancs Loft, a ucLadino symposium at UCLA and a Sephardic World Arts day at the Luckman.

Although the festival already seems quite packed, Safar noted that “in the first year, it’s hard to do everything,” and he envisions future partnerships with L.A.’s Hispanic community, as well as even more venues and new artists.

The Sephardic Music Festival takes place March 2-11. For dates and times of events, go to sephardicmusicfestival.com.

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