You’re at a rock concert jumping up and down, pumping your fists, and chanting incantations towards the stage. The band in return sets a solid beat, strums guitar cords, and belts out music with unabashed sincerity. Now add kippot on sweaty heads, tzitzit slapping against thighs, High School Yeshiva boys, and married couples, and you get a Jewish rock concert. Continue to add heart pounding percussions, Middle Eastern rhythm, a little Latin, and you get the Sephardi Music Festival.
On December 22, 2011, the Moshav Band, SoulFarm and Describe performed at the Highline Ballroom as one of many events to take place during the 7th Annual Sephardi Music Festival (SMF). Hosted by the music recording company Shemspeed, Pioneers for a Cure and Madmimi, SMF aimed to showcase the vibrant and diverse cultures of Spain, North Africa, Yemen, the Middle East and Central Asia, while steering away from the Ashkenazi constructs of Klezmer, gefilte fish and Shweky.
Each night a different style of Sephardi music was featured, starting with psychedelic Hasidic rock (Pharaoh’s Daughter), Spanish and Ladino flamenco (Dan, Aviva and Drory Yehoshua), Morocco and Middle Eastern poetry (ASEFA), religious infused hip-hop (Describe), classic Mizrahi (Miki Gavrielov) and Balkan blues (Oudblues). Dan and Aviva, international New York-based musicians, infused flamenco and folk to showcase what many would consider classic Sephardic music. Haale, an Iranian musician from the Bronx, sang music filled with trance-like rhythms, a Sephardic interpretation inspired by Persian mysticism and American psychedelics. Thrown into the mix was the release of the Shtetl Channuka single featuring Y-Love and Sarah Aroeste, and the highly anticipated Israeli hip-hop CD, Shalom Haters, both recorded by the Brooklyn based producer, Diwon (Erez Safar).
The Sephardic Story Slam on December 27, the festival’s closing event, though not musically infused, possibly showcased the mission of the festival most accurately: Educating and creating diversity and common ground amongst the participants. Instead of using music, the Sephardic story slam accomplished the goal of the festival through story telling—the more embarrassing, funny or heartbreaking, the better.
Since man has communicated through language, oral stories have had the power to hold traditions together, diffuse wars, and encourage creativity. It’s a form of self-expression that leaves no room for insincerity, and opens up the speaker to be as vulnerable as possible, whether she is speaking to a friend or a room full of people.
The festival facilitated this self-expression by inviting nine actors, poets, writers and comedians to share their personal stories on topics ranging from dating gone wrong to Saudi Arabian proms to Chabad conspiracy theories. The night took place in the Triad Theatre on 72nd between Columbus Ave and Broadway, on top of a Turkish restaurant so small you wouldn’t notice it unless you were looking for it. Inside the theatre, merlot paint and baroque gold detailing covered the walls, a small black stage sat upfront, and a group of 50 people created intimacy without crowding.
It was the first story slam to be incorporated since the festival came to fruition seven years ago, a night inspired by stories told during the filming of the festival’s promotional video. Ofra Isenberg from Comedy Central hosted the event, filling in the blanks between performances with her own comedic retelling of Jewish life in Alberta, Canada. The featured poet, Vanessa Hidery, accomplished author and slam poet seen on the HBO show Deaf Poetry Jam, spoke about her mix of Russian, Jewish, Ashkanazi and Syrian ancestry and how it complicates dating. Both of her poems were excerpts from her two one-woman plays, “Emancipation of a Sassy Jewish Princess” and "Culture Bandit."
One of the most interesting stories was by Sonya Loya, a New Mexican Jew, who spoke about converting to Judaism before discovering her parents were both Crypto Jews, who became “conversos” during the Spanish Inquisition. Dina Plouche, a Tunisian from Brooklyn, told one of the more humorous stories extracted from her one-woman play “Multiple-Plouchinalities.” She recalled how every engagement was like a Saudi Arabian prom from the 80s, how “every moustache hair equaled a child,” and how an event with 300 Sephardim was considered an intimate affair.
On the stranger side, an Ashkenazi comedian, Michelle Slonim, complained about her “Jewish frat boy douche bag” (JFBDB) dating experiences and belted “Friday” by Rebecca Black. In the end, the winner of the Sephardic storytelling “Slampion” was Ilya Chodesh, seen in his spoken word show “Birthright Monologues,” a character who could have easily fit into “The Big Bang Theory.” In six minutes he confessed how he gave up the Internet during his university years to prevent himself from staying up at night searching conspiracy theories and True Crimes Reports online. Caving into his need for WiFi he conned the local Chabad into giving him their password (Jewish123) in exchange for wrapping teffilin, referred to by Ilya as “the black leather bondage strap.”
When the night finished, it was clear that the box labeled “Sephardic upbringing” had been shoved open to encompass a wide array of interpretations. The stories highlighted unique Sephardic upbringings geared to a less religious audience. No two stories were the same, and at the end of the show, audience members were encouraged to return the following year with their own stories. Though there was room for improvement in the storytelling talent, it still remained the perfect ending to a music festival geared to redefining what Sephardi really means, while strengthening the vivid colors and rhythms Sephardi culture is known for.
If rhythmic melodies, traditional love poems, folk tales, and modern electro beats call your name, or if you have a Sephardic story worth sharing, than you won’t want to miss the festival next Channuka; just beware if you want to dance, you’ll have to bring your own mechitza—not that anyone will stop you if you don’t.