Read the full article at timesofisrael.com
Here’s a snippet: Throughout the aughts, he had made a name for himself in New York’s Jewish music scene, working with artists like Matisyahu, Y-Love, Moshav, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Shi 360, Electro Morocco, and others.
“When I moved to New York [after college], I was booking these kinds of interesting, weirdo Jewish events right at the beginning of the Jewish thing being cool,” says Safar.
“When Matisyahu’s band manager called me, all I knew was there was this Hasidic guy who could beatbox. He opened for me DJ-ing cantorial music with drum and bass, and then Matis jumped on with two Chabad guys, one on the hand drum, one on guitar. Everyone who was there was like, ‘what just happened?’”
From there, things began to pick up quickly, he says. Safar began making and DJ-ing his own music — a melange of hip hop, dance, Middle Eastern canon, and klezmer punk — as well as producing music for other artists. In booking shows, releasing music, and promoting, he founded his Shemspeed music label and Bancs Media, a production company and branding agency serving Jewish and non-Jewish artists, alike.
Erez Safar borrowed the stage name Diwon from a Yemenite book of songs and prayers.
“I reinvented myself,” Safar says. “When I did a residency at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, I produced and performed in full Yemenite henna style garb. But I also took the name mainly because I didn’t want something that sounded too much of one thing, since I knew I would produce all sorts of music.”
‘I didn’t want something that sounded too much of one thing, since I knew I would produce all sorts of music’
He’s been called the “hardest working man in the Jewish music industry,” but in the decade since that particular accolade, he’s branched out into so much more.
“Music is my biggest passion,” Safar says, “but the truth is I love art in all its manifestations.”
From 2005 through 2015, he produced the Sephardic Music Festival, bringing together art, music, food, and fashion derived from Mizrahi and Sephardic tradition — often overshadowed by “Ashkenormative” tendencies in New York and throughout the United States.
Sephardic Judaism had always been a constant theme in Safar’s life. Having drawn influence from his Sephardic roots in Yemen, he eventually designed a Semitic sudra/keffiyeh, a type of scarf popular among Palestinians, but decorated with blue Stars of David. It caused an uproar. (correction: Baruch Chertok is the designer of the Israeli Sudra/Keffiyeh, Erez Safar is the founder of Shemspeed and The Semitic and the Israeli Sudra/Keffiyehs’ exclusive promoter/distributor.)
“People don’t know the shared cultural history between Arab Jews and Arab Muslims,” says Safar. “We have a lot more similarities than differences.”
Many of these similarities were regional in terms of clothing and food, and not divided by religion. Sudra/Keffiyehs are popular in nearly two dozen Arab countries — countries where Jews have resided, too, Safar explains. Only recently the sudra/keffiyeh became most strongly associated with Palestinians, but the regional scarf is used widely to block sand and sun.
“People who don’t really know the background view it as only a Palestinian thing, but that’s not the reality,” says Safar. “You can look at it as kind of cool, educating people about the similarities. It’s something that unifies Jews and Palestinians.”
Wearing a sudra/keffiyeh doesn’t feel foreign, he adds. Yemenite on his mother’s side, Safar says that his Mizrahi heritage — the clothing, the culture, the food — is closest to how original Jewish practices before the Diaspora.
‘It’s something that unifies Jews and Palestinians’
“We were indigenous to the Middle East, not Eastern Europe,” says Safar, whose father is Ashkenazi. “So I think it makes sense to gravitate towards it way more.”
In many ways, Safar can be credited with making Jewish cool, continuing today to promote artists like Kosha Dillz, helping them have equal parts mainstream and Jewish appeal. He made Jewishness accessible outside its traditional scope. And in the scope of the mainstream, he’s a practicing Orthodox Jew who brings his eclectic background to his current projects.
“Art and music and whatever other elements, I don’t want to be in this little niche,” Safar says. “I’m constantly reinventing myself.”