Arts & Culture

Diwon is to Yemenite music as Pharrell is to Gwen

Diwon is the newest in the litany of identities of Erez Safar, the producer/drummer/promoter/DJ/occasional backup vocalist. Perhaps best known for being one-half of the touring band for Orthodox hip-hop M.C. Y-Love, Safar, who’s always alluded to his Yemenite Jewish ancestry, … Read More

By / March 13, 2008

Diwon is the newest in the litany of identities of Erez Safar, the producer/drummer/promoter/DJ/occasional backup vocalist. Perhaps best known for being one-half of the touring band for Orthodox hip-hop M.C. Y-Love, Safar, who’s always alluded to his Yemenite Jewish ancestry, is now openly embracing it with a new wardrobe, a new sound, and a new series of concerts. At his upcoming weeklong residency at the Jewish Museum, expect to hear a lot of traditional music, a lot of untraditional music, a guest appearance or two…and a straight guy in a shiny dress. Do more than just dance to his music:You’ve got a million aliases already—DJ Handler, DJ E, and, for a long time, the Prince-like mononome “Erez.” Why all the secret identities? Why the need to break this one out, and why now? Saul Williams said that “words create worlds.” Different companies and different events I run, each one’s like a different conception, like the Beastie Boys, making a million aliases for every project. Each name represents the world I’m trying to create within the project. DJ Handler I started before I became a DJ, and I never felt like it was me—it never really fit. I always knew I wanted a one-word handle, I just didn’t know what it was yet. Making Yemenite music under the name “Handler” sounded kind of absurd…and not in a good way. For the folks out there without too much other Yemenite music to compare yours with, can you give us a cheat sheet on what Yemenite music is exactly? I draw influences from a lot of cultures. Simply put, it’s music that Yemenites made. A lot of it’s influenced by the Muslims and Arabs that lived with them in Yemen—it has a Middle Eastern scaling similar to Sephardic music. Yemenite music might be a little more mantra-like, very repetitive. They use the same melody throughout the whole service, don’t they? The Kabbalat Shabbat part is. The evening service is different melodies, but yeah. To me, it’s really holy because the Yemenites didn’t move around a bunch. They just left Israel, and they stayed in one place. Even Moshe Feinstein says that the Yemenite pronunciation is the most accurate, because they never moved. To me, they seem like they’re the most in touch with the way it was in the beginning. Actually, most people probably don’t know what Jews were doing in Yemen in the first place — can you give us a thirty-second history lesson? I have no idea how they got there. Locationally, it’s a lot closer to what was going on in the Bible than, say, Eastern Europe… When you remix, what factors go into your musical reimagining? Usually, I try to strip a song bare. I’ll take just vocals, and grab a keyboard line from somewhere. For instance, the woman who sold me my Yemenite clothing – it’s called Galdiya – she gave me a CD of her and her daughter singing. There was one song for the henna ceremony, just their voices and a darbouka [hand drum]. When I remixed that, I cut up the darbouka parts and laid out a 70s-style disco beat and layered on bass and snare drum parts, and textures, so it sounds electronic, and now it sounds really cool. It’s open. There aren’t too many instruments, so it plays as its own rhythm. Do you ever pick artists or songs that you don’t like, or do you ever try to subvert or go against the original idea of a song? Not really. Unless there’s insanely huge sums of money, but I haven’t really gotten there yet. In your work with Y-Love, you’ve really straddled the boundary between the secular and the religious—using Spank Rock’s “Bump” song with pretty religious lyrics, for instance. Do you ever get complaints? Do Haredi people ever recognize the music or go “hey, what’s going on?” I can never tell who knows it—I can’t tell whether people like the beat or whether people actually recognize it. On Martin Luther King Day in D.C., a bunch of people came up to me afterwards and complimented me on a Slick Rick beat I’d played, and none of them looked like someone who’d even know who Slick Rick was. I don’t think that frum people who have an issue with secular beats would ever come to the show. Sometimes Charedi people come out to it, but they’re not Charedi Charedi, they’re Charedi-minus-one. They wouldn’t mind being at a hip-hop show, so they wouldn’t mind being at a Y-Love show. This upcoming gig at the Jewish Museum is your first official show as Diwon. Do you have any special stuff planned? I bought the clothing, so that’s going to be a surprise for a lot of people. I’m probably going to bring Miriam Zafri up. There’ll be some special guest vocalists, maybe Smadar—who’ll also be dressed in traditional vocals, maybe. My residency goes all week, so we can have lots of stuff planned. The live parts are Sunday evening and Thursday evening. Thursday is the closing ceremony—we’re expecting over a thousand people. Why do you think 1980s-style synth-pop has this huge, undying love in Israel? I thought all Israelis love Gwen Stefani and that was it. Israelis are the new Harajuku girls, and Diwon is the new Gwen.