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MUSIC: ‘That Yemenite Kid’  Diwon makes a mix tape—in Yiddish

By Daniel Sieradski

October 7, 2008 | 2:12 am

NEW YORK (JTA) -- Courtesy of Diwon, the artist formerly known as DJ Handler and otherwise known as the executive director of Modular Moods and Shemspeed.com, comes this fresh mix of pop, hip-hop, electronica and . . . Yiddish?

We spoke to "That Yemenite Kid" and asked him what's up with this unusual release.

JTA: As an artist and producer you've focused on highlighting Sephardic and Yemenite Jewish music as an alternative to what some see as the Ashkenazic domination of the Jewish cultural scene. With that in mind, what's a nice Yemenite kid like you doing in a Yiddishe place like this?

Diwon: I'm half-Yemenite. My other side is Ashkenaz. That is the side that came out here. Don't forget, I started a klezmer punk band in college called Juez. So this really isn't too far out for me. I think just because of the recent change of my artist name from DJ Handler to Diwon and some of the press around the music, now I'm seen as very Yemenite and the past is sort of washed over. I'm definitely more passionate about the Yemenite music I'm making because I feel that there has already been a big Yiddish and klezmer music revival.

At the same time, I don't know of any Yiddish mixtapes that have ever been made -- you know, Yiddish through the eyes of a street mixtape DJ. It was a challenge to take the source material flip it over my own beats and remixes and then throw in some of my friends who are fusing Yiddish with electronic music and what not. Plus that Andrew sisters "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" is so hot. I DJ it in clubs all the time. That in itself was almost reason enough to create this mixtape.

JTA: I notice you have some Hebrew language stuff in there as well. That's going to make the Yiddishists angry . . .

Diwon: Ha! I don't know. I guess some controversy is good.

There is a lot of great classic Yiddish music out there that, beyond revivals from Golem and Socalled, most young Jews today are completely unfamiliar with.


Click for streaming audio

JTA: Do you see any potential for the reinvigoration of Yiddish music as anything more than a novelty for this generation?

Diwon: I could see why people would say that Socalled is a novelty, but you could argue the music isn't a novelty because he grew up listening to Yiddish records and this is how he makes Yiddish music -- as opposed to say, an artist who put one Yiddish thing on their non-Yiddish album, as a novelty.

It's a tough question to answer since most artists fuse different elements and genres and influences into their compositions. I don't think that it's novelty if an artist fuses their tradition into their music if it's done in a sincere way and not with a smirk.

JTA: But what about for the consumer? So let's say your doing Yemenite music isn't a novelty, it's an expression of your identity, but for the average music consumer, it's a novelty. Take Matisyahu for example. Did non-Jews buy his album because he's a great reggae artist, or because he's an amusement?

Diwon: I think it depends on the consumer. One who isn't that familiar with the tradition might buy it as novelty. But someone who knows the music and likes Yiddish or Yemenite music will buy it to expand their collection and for them its not necessarily a novelty purchase.

I know non-Jews who bought Matisyahu's record because they like reggae. But then there are tons that probably bought it off the hype that was fueled by the novelty of it all. But I don't think any of that matters. If he had put out one record and then went to making regular, non-Jewish reggae, I think it would be different. People would say "what a fake" and "what kind of marketing stunt is this?" But the fact is this is his true expression. He tours the world playing it and he is onto his third record, making it. It's obvious that he doesn't view it as a novelty. And the fact that he is still successful at it shows that it's definitely more than a novelty. That and maybe the fact that he doesn't wear a suit and a black hat anymore.

JTA: How's the Jewish music scene holding up in light of the current economic downturn? Is your label, Modular Moods, surviving, thriving, dying?

Diwon: Well stateside we're still alright. It's a bit harder when I tour internationally, but no matter what I'm still going to grind and get as much good music out there as possible. If only to cheer up the people who are down due to the economy.

JTA: Well, giving away free music helps!

Diwon: Yeah, well music is basically free nowadays anyway, so why try and front? I feel like I give 75% of my music out for free and use the other 25% to fund it all and survive.

JTA: So what can we expect from Modular Moods in the coming months?

Diwon: Don't miss the Sephardic Music Festival this Chanukah in NYC, the Shemspeed 40 Days 40 Nights Tour of college campuses in February, and a slew of new songs and albums unlike anything people have ever heard. We ain't gonna stop now.

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