Sephardic Music Festival Vol. 1 – A Musical Mezze

I love living in the Twin Cities (and who wouldn’t? There are so many reasons to love being Jewish Twin Citizens!). But every now and then, I get just a wee bit jealous of the Jewish scenes in metros that are just a little bit bigger than MSP. Like New York.
If I was in the Big Apple this week, I’d probably be heading to the Sephardic Music Festival – a Chanukah festival taking place at music venues around the city. In its sixth year, the festival highlights the latest Sephardic musical talents from around the world as well as the diversity within the Sephardic tradition. They’re covering it all, from Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) to Mizrahi (Middle Eastern/North African) to Yemenite and Judeo-Arabic in traditional folk and modern fusion expressions. Eight days worth of parties, concerts, art raves, fashion shows, and educational workshops sounds like a fantastic way to celebrate the holiday, if you ask me.
Alas, I’m not in New York. Luckily for me, Shemspeed sent a copy of  Sephardic Music Festival Vol. 1 (Shemspeed, 11/30/10; $14/$18) so that I could get a sense of what I’m missing. The album, like the festival itself, highlights the wide variety of styles and sounds found within the Sephardi music scene. With its eclectic mix, it definitely feels more suited to throwing on in the background of a party and not so much an album that you’d lay on your living room floor and listen to in one stretch.
The album blends traditional songs with original tunes inspired by traditional themes. Matisyahu’s opening song “Two Child One Drop” is a great example of the blends you’ll find on the album – he mixes Middle Eastern hip hop riffs with a traditional Yemenite melody sung by Yehuda Solomon. Yasmin Levy’s “Mi Korasón” is a soulful and haunting tune in Ladino, a language that teases Spanish speakers with its similarities and unexpected differences. And, as with any compilation album, there were a few tracks that weren’t automatic favorites. I really wanted to love the more traditional tunes (like Yair Dalal’s “Ya Ribon Alam”), but couldn’t. It’s not that they weren’t great – my Western-trained ears just have a hard time with the traditional nasal singing style. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the electronic mixes like “Kapayim” by Shi360 and Yamanz but I suspect that had to do with the fact that lively club mixes don’t belong in my living room on a mellow Saturday night.
At $14 for the download and $18 for the cd, Sephardic Music Festival Vol. 1 is an affordable way to experience the Sephardic Music Festival without traveling to New York. Like sitting down to a good mezze, the sampler gives you little bites of everything – some will be new favorites, some will be passed along for others to enjoy. And all will probably leave you craving more of at least some of the tastes you’ll experience.