The ‘Exotic’ Jewish Music


In a way, you might say that by staging his annual Sephardic Music Festival in New York City, Erez Shudnow, better known as dj handler, is paying back an old debt.

“My mom is Yemenite and my grandmother came from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Yemen,” he explained in an e-mail while preparing for the third annual version of the event, which begins on Dec. 4 at various venues throughout the city. “I have been very influenced by their culture, especially sitting in synagogue listening to the hypnotic prayers which sounded more like meditative mantras. The meter mesmerized me and I always wanted to replicate it in my music.”

He started out by doing Yemenite-based mixes, trying to get the message out that Ladino is a dying language and that Yemenite and other Sephardic music are underappreciated, particularly as since the klezmer revival has helped to increase awareness of Yiddish.

“I thought the best way to get the most attention to the culture would be to throw a festival instead of a couple shows,” he wrote. “I wanted Sephardic culture not only to be seen as beautiful, but also as hip and fresh.”

There is another factor at play in the decision to stage a Sephardic music festival, he added.

“I think people are very intrigued by what they find mysterious and I think that a lot of people find Middle Eastern culture mysterious,” handler said. “This is probably why there seems to be more curiosity for a festival like this than, say, a festival called ‘Ashkenazi Music Festival.’ A lot of Jews already have a good idea of what [Ashkenazi] music will sound like, either A: a wedding; or B: calmer Sephardic is an umbrella terms for all the Jewish cultures that are not ‘Ashkenazi/Eastern European,’ which include Yemenite, Ladino, Bucharian… A lot of this is exotic to the general public.”

Or to the Jewish public, for that matter. Despite the success of such Sephardic- and Mizrahi-flavored acts as Pharaoh’s Daughter and Sarah Aroeste (both of whom are performing in the festival this year), the overwhelming majority of Jewish music groups in the marketplace are klezmer or Yiddish in language or musical mood. And handler readily admits that the dominant feature of the Sephardic audience up to now has been its musical conservatism.

“The point for me was to stay away from some of the aspects that make Sephardic music appealing to the older crowd, which totally loses the crowd that won’t start listening to traditional music for another 20 years,” he said.

For an example of the edgier, hip-hop-informed musical mix that he aims for in programming the festival, handler points to a mix tape he compiled, which is available at

“The mix tape blends Michal Cohen, my favorite Yemenite singer, who used to live down the block from me, Yuri Lane doing a Mizrachi beat box, Arabic break beats, Ladino sped up over a Busta Rhymes instrumental and Afro-beat with Yemenite chanting over it,” he explained. “It really draws in people obsessed with the beat into a world where the melodies are probably very unfamiliar but maybe still very comforting.”

This has been a busy year of growth for handler and his various Jewish music enterprises. In addition to the full slate of releases on modular moods, the name of the label he founded, he has started a Jewish music Web site, Not surprisingly, this year’s Sephardic Music Festival is also bigger than its predecessors.

“The Sephardic Festival is a very mixed bag,” he wrote. “This year we put together a night celebrating world music with an emphasis on Sephardic sounds spun by [me] and the Israeli DJ crew Soulico, along with Y-Love on the mike. We bring in an act from Israel every year. This year we wanted to bring in Shotei Hanevua, but they had just broken up so we brought the group that came out of Shotei Haneuva called Pshutei Ha’am.”

The festival is both a labor of love and an act of collaboration between many New York music presenters.

“The whole festival comes together through a lot of love and collaboration,” handler said. “Brice Rosenbloom [founder of Music Without Borders] always helps out a lot. The guys from Soulfarm who have extended their BB King “first night of Chanukah” gig to us for our Opening Night. It was perfect timing because Consuelo Luz just happens to be in New York at that time. She lives in New Mexico and has been included on all sorts of compilations ranging from Buddha Bar to Putumayo collections. We will be featuring her as well as [jazz musician] Ayelet Rose Gottlieb and Sarah Aroeste at the Opening Night BB King show. The last night of the festival is Pharaoh’s Daughter and Pshutei Ha’am at the Knitting Factory. But for the Brooklyn folks who like staying around there we put together a show at Southpaw with Yossi Piamenta.

Handler concluded, “This year seemed to just fall into place very easily, but that might be because we laid down a nice foundation the first two years with the festival.”

You might say that this installment of handler’s indebtedness to his family and its roots can be marked “paid in full.”

The Third Annual Sephardic Music Festival will run from Dec. 4-11 at venues all over New York. For information, go to