“Strange Fruit” – Remembering the Civil Rights Movement

I was a bit disappointed this past November when I was unable to see the Edlavtich DCJCC’s Washington Jewish Music Festival (WJMF) show by Levine Music, “Strange Fruit: Music from – and inspired by – the Civil Rights movement”. The tickets for this show sold out too quickly for me to get one, and people who attended told me it was a big success. So when I saw, last month, that the EDCJCC was offering a second performance on January 29th, I immediately decided to check it out AND got the chance to speak with one of the musicians involved!

The “Strange Fruit” concert was a powerful and intense experience from the beginning to the end. Energetic songs and freedom chants were sung, heartbreaking poems and motivating speeches were recited. The audience was taken to the 1960s and back by the rhythm of the instruments and the amazing voices of the musicians. By the end everybody stood, sang and clapped to the rhythm of “We Shall Overcome!”

A few days before the performance, I had the pleasure of speaking with internationally acclaimed opera singer and star of this show, Mr. Charles Williams – who has performed at renowned venues such as Carnegie Hall, Wolf Trap, The Smithsonian, and the Kennedy Center. Williams led the “Strange Fruit” show with songs, recited classic poetry, and even read a portion of Martin Luther King Jr’s Nobel Prize speech. We talked about the two performances at the EDCJCC, freedom riders, the civil rights movement, and the difference with today’s movements for social justice.

Daniela: “Strange Fruit” had already been performed and had such a big impact that the EDCJCC proposed an encore. Were you expecting such a big success?

Charles: It was very exciting, and we were very overwhelmed by the reception. We’d love to do it again, and in other places, but there are about 7 people in the show and it’s difficult to get them all together. When composer, educator, and one of the leading musicians Chris Brown (no, not that Chris Brown) – and the people at the EDCJCC suggested we do it again, we all agreed and we’re really looking forward to it.

Daniela: Tell us about this project. Why did you decide to present it as part of the Washington Jewish Music Festival?

Charles: Chris Brown spoke with the people at the WJMF, and thought it was a wonderful idea to open the show during the WJMF because it has a lot to do with racism, and the Jewish people have had their share of racism – it was a natural. During the Civil Rights era, there were so many people of all religions and ages that were very much a part of it, including a lot of Jews. Martin Luther King Jr. had a very special talent because he was speaking the truth and people knew it. He forced Americans to get on the right track.

Daniela: What about the musical selection? How did the set list come together?

Charles: In 1961 the freedom riders travelled to Washington, DC and to the deep south. Some of them were attacked, and some of them were killed. We chose some of the freedom riders’ songs that I suggested, and as well as some of the other songs from the era that were being sung by the students.

Daniela: What makes a song like “Strange Fruit” a protest song, and how big of an impact did that song have when it first came out?

Charles: “Strange Fruit” was written in 1939 by a white, Jewish school teacher Abel Meeropol who was a member of The Communist Party. He wrote it as a protest poem exposing American racism and particularly the lynching of African Americans. Then, Billie Holiday wrote music to it. It became an anthem, a very important song of the civil rights era.

Daniela: Do you think that today’s “resistance” movement can be compared to the civil rights movement? What’s the role of music in it?

Charles: You can compare today’s “resistance” movement to the civil rights movement, but there is one significant difference. During the civil rights movement, people sang. Everybody – Catholics, Jews, Black people, and White people…they sang.

Nowadays, people are not singing. Even during the Women’s March, they were not singing. Music is extremely powerful, and if you do music while you are resisting, that becomes very powerful and it’s difficult to disregard it. I think that’s what is missing with these movements, like the Women’s movement and Black Lives Matter. They could sing the music from the civil rights era! They are missing an opportunity, and it won’t have as big of a success without the music. Music and love are the most powerful forces on earth!


About the Author: Daniela Enriquez is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you. Daniela is Italian and comes from the only Jewish family in Palermo (population: slightly higher than DC). Things she likes about America include: the price of clothing, Internet coffee houses and ice rinks. Among the less desirable things are: the obsession with air conditioning, American “espresso,” and root beer. Feel free to contact her for advice on real Italian food in DC!


The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Spotted in Jewish DC – Indie/Folk Singer Eli Lev

Folk singer-songwriter Eli Lev was spotted at the Silver Spring Fresh Farmers Market by our very own Rachel Gildiner. The moment Eli’s soothing indie/folk music hit Rachel’s ears, she was captivated. So, to ensure all of our amazing readers can experience this mesmerizing music around DC, we’re featuring Eli’s band in this week’s #SpottedinJewishDC!

Oh, and you can go check him out in person next week on December 13th at SonyByrd for his album release party.

Allie: How did you become a musician?

Eli: Growing up I was always exposed to Jewish music especially klezmer music. I came back to DC last year to take care of my family because my dad has been going through some health issues. Before coming here, I was working as a teacher and finishing my Master’s in Language Education from Indiana University. When I came back to the area, someone asked me to play music with them at Tryst. This led to me playing at SongByrd, the Kennedy Center, and then Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton asked me to perform at The Capitol! All of a sudden – I’m a full time musician.

Allie: What type of music do you play?

Eli: Indie/Folk, Americana with a little bit of soul in there. Jack Johnson meets Johnny Cash. Smooth, laid back vocal approach with some honky tonk general.

Allie: Music heroes?

Eli: Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, all the best singer/songwriters from the 60s/70s. Vance Joy I like a lot. Mumford and Sons I have to thank for bringing folk back to people’s ears.

Allie: What are your songs about?

Eli: A lot of my songs I wrote when traveling around the world. My most recent single is “Go Down,” about a baptismal site I saw when I was living in Israel. I just made a music video based on that song.

Allie: What are the goals for your music?

Eli: My music is about bringing people together, and creating power with ourselves to identify who we are. This has a lot to do with getting back to nature, connecting to your neighbors – and understanding that we’re a part of the community we create. The folk music brings this all together because it inherently has a link to the past.

In today’s political climate, we’re at the mercy of the latest news cycle. We’re being taught to fear each other, even within the Jewish community, and it makes us weak. To be a strong person and a strong community, there has to be unity. My music speaks to that.

My next single is called “Making Space” and that is about creating space for ourselves to feel empowered, and use our voice to protest.

Allie: Any plans for the future of your music you’re particularly excited about?

Eli: I’m playing with a full folk band, and we have an album release party coming up at SongByrd. Playing with a band gives me a lot of excitement, and expands my reach. Ultimately, I’d love to do national and international touring.



The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Manny Arciniega: Quartet to the End of Time

When I checked out the program of the 19th Washington Music Jewish Festival (WJMF), I noticed that the Levine Music faculty were/are performing Messiaen’s “Quartet to the End of Time,” a work composed inside a prisoner of war camp in 1940. I wondered what a piece written by a Catholic composer, and inspired by the Book of Revelations and the Apocalypse, had to do with the Jewish festival.

I got very curious and decided to attend the concert and interview one of the members of the band, percussionist Manny Arciniega. Manny explained that while inside the prisoner of war camp, Messiaen met with two other world famous musicians: violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier. Messiaen loved to listen to natural sounds like birds singing, and added these sounds into his composition.

The other band members presented an innovative version of the piece by re-scoring and playing it with electronic instruments and percussion. What resulted was a mesmerizing performance.

By the end, I had an answer to my question: why was this performance included into the Jewish music festival? Well, in addition to one of the three musicians who played it, Étienne Pasquier, being Jewish, the piece is a work expressing liberation and the possibility of hope — sentiments which are very close to our Jewish history.

Enjoy my interview with Manny Arciniega!


Daniela: I hear you are on faculty at Levine Music. Tell us more about that!

Manny: Levine Music is a community music school that serves the area around DC for students of all ages and abilities. It provides a welcoming community for children and adults to find lifelong inspiration and joy through learning, performing, listening, and participating in music.

Daniela: Why did you decide to commemorate Messiaen’s Quartet to the end of time at this year’s WJMF?

Manny: Each year, Levine Music chooses a theme for its concert series that faculty participate in.  The theme for the 2016-2017 Levine Presents series was “The Power of Music: Protest, Propaganda, Promise” – and I immediately thought of the “Quartet for the End of Time.” The story of the piece’s conception, having been written in a Nazi prisoner of war camp during WWII, perfectly intersected with the proposed theme.  Messiaen drew his inspiration from the Book of Revelation but its message is far from Apocalyptical.  It was an offering from Messiaen to the other prisoners in the camp. The music, composed of birdsong and sounds no one in that camp had ever heard before, allowed each individual to remove themselves from the temporal and into peace.  

The work is a testament to the power of human will to overcome the darkest of circumstances.  It’s message of hope, perseverance, and love.

This seemed appropriate topics for the WJMF.  Recent political events have necessitated a fresh look at Messiaen’s timeless masterpiece.

Daniela: How do electric instruments and percussion add to/change the original piece?

Manny: I loved the “Quartet for the End of Time” since my first encounter with it as a graduate student in the UK. I used to drive around listening to it in my car and imagine what it would sound like with percussion behind it. Messiaen was an avid composer for percussion instruments, and many of his birdsong compositions use a percussion or lesser known instruments such as the Ondes Martenot.

Changing the orchestration provided a variety of challenges from an arranging standpoint.  I tried to find parallels between the original instruments and their modern counterparts. My goal was to find moments where I felt Messiaen was trying to maximize a particular timbre or sound and see if we could dial it up.

My hope was to just strike a chord with the individual. Whether that is one of contemplation over the cacophony of sound, or complete disgust for the destruction of revered music, we just want to invoke an emotional response.

After the premiere of the re-orchestration this past January, one individual just came up to me, gave me a hug and then thanked me with tears in his eyes. It’s a moment I will always remember.

Daniela: Does this piece give you an experience of oppression or liberation while you play it, knowing that it was composed and performed in a Nazi camp?

Manny: As for the history of its composition, knowing its origins strengthens its meaning of hope and liberation. Each time I play that 8th movement, I get goosebumps.

I can’t help but think about how beautiful the world is, despite all of the hatred and lack of empathy around us — music is inspiring — it’s an escape from the ‘now.’

Daniela: How has playing this piece changed the relationship between the musicians? 

Manny: If it weren’t for the other individuals in this performance, it most likely would have never been realized. As a result of this project, we have all found ourselves in vulnerable positions, both musically and emotionally, from the stress that comes with working such a challenging work and that has served to bring us closer together. Everyone has put their heart and soul into learning this music, its story, and the language of Messiaen’s unique composition style. I will admit, there have been moments of doubt that some of the tasks before us might be impossible to pull off, but in the end no one backed down from the challenge.




About the Author: Daniela is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you! She is a “retired philosopher” who works as an executive assistant and loves to write about Italian and Jewish events happening in DC. She was born and raised in Sicily (Italy) in an interfaith family and moved to D.C. with her husband after studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where they met. They have a wonderful Siberian cat named Rambam! Daniela loves going to work while listening to Leonard Cohen’s songs and sometimes performs in a West African Dance group



The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

1:1 with Simone Baron, Washington Jewish Music Festival

Simone Baron – AIR

I was very excited, a few days ago, to speak over the phone with Simone Baron, artist in-residence at the Washington Jewish Music Festival (WJMF), which just ended this past Sunday. Simone had a very busy Washingtonian week, with a concert every night, including three shows during the WJMF. Nevertheless, she found the time to talk with me about her life and her love for music and performance. My excitement grew after we exchanged a few greetings and Simone asked me – with a perfect accent – “Ma…sei italiana?” [Wait, are you Italian?] and explained me that her mother is Italian too! We made a promise to find time to meet and grab a coffee – an espresso, of course – together soon!

I know you want to read about Simone, so I’ll stop writing so you can get to a slightly modified version of our phone interview.


Daniela: What are your current musical influences and how did you arrive at this point in your career?

Simone: I grew up listening to classical chamber music. I started playing piano seriously at age sixteen, and was given my first accordion for my bat mitzvah when I was 12. When I was finishing my degree in classical piano at Oberlin, I was in a musical rut and feeling tension in my body, so I started playing some phrases accordion and it opened up my world a lot – I was able to sing on the instrument. I listened to great accordion players who were creating all sorts of interesting things with the instrument.

My musical influences? People who inspire me and totally immerse themselves as deeply as possible. Esperanza Spalding, is someone who goes deeply into everything she does and moves freely between musical genres, yet stays true to her musical DNA. Another current influence is Tyshawn Sorey. I met him this past summer in Canada at Banff. He is a brilliant, beautiful composer, multi-instrumentalist, and conductor, and listens with every pore in his body. Making music with him was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

I arrived at this point in my career through a combination of hard work, jumping into many things without thinking too much, and staying true to my constantly growing appetite and inner weirdness.

Simone Baron – AIR

Daniela: Do you view the accordion as a contemporary instrument, or something in need of a revival?

Simone: There is an amazing quote by Pauline Oliveros:

The accordion is my primary instrument. It’s an old friend – comfortable and expressive. Symbolically it is aligned with *the people* – working people. It is also a challenge to play an instrument that grew up after the period of classical music. The piano is centered in that period. The accordion has a life of its own.”

By the time I became interested in the accordion, the stigma tied to it has been largely washed away, replaced by a vague admiration for this eclectic thing. At the same time, due to the efforts of a few excellent musicians, there is a lot of very interesting contemporary music written – and being written 1– for the accordion: it is an instrument with infinite possibilities, the beautiful visual mechanism of breathing, and it is still evolving.

Daniela: We heard your just had your “World Premiere” concert with David Buchbinder at the WJMF. What was most exciting for you about this collaboration?

Simone: David is a Toronto based trumpeter, and as I’ve just started my masters there, so the WJMF organizer had the idea for us to collaborate on a performance together. David has assembled a fantastic band including Drew Jurecka – an amazing violinist/saxophonist, and Justin Gray, a fantastic bassist– it’s wonderful to hear our music interpreted by all of them! We were joined by DC based Lucas Ashby, a frequent collaborator of mine and a beautiful drummer.

Daniela: Let’s talk about the Bina Project, which I know is very important for you. You mixed chamber music works from women composers, madrigals from Italian–Jewish composers and multimedia effects. What is this project about and how did you managed to include all these elements?

Simone: The Bina Project (which took place this past Sunday at the WJMF) grew out of an ongoing inquiry into what the concert form can be. I’m coming from a world in which the standard model of a concert pianist is one who sits down at the piano and plays a well balanced, slightly boring repertoire, without really interacting with the audience.

Humans seek communication and direction. The concert focused on Bina, which means “understanding, knowledge” in Hebrew. It has the same root as livnot (to build) so it’s a creative concept. People in the audience created their own story out of the different disparate elements presented on stage – poems by Gertrude Stein, dance, the dialogue between spectralism and Scriabin.

Daniela: With so many active projects (the Arco Belo Ensemble, the Contra Ponte Project, and now the collaboration with Buchbinder) how do you

Simone Baron – AIR

manage to keep them all going while pursuing your masters?

Simone: The Contra Ponte Project, which took place this past weekend, featured regular trio of mine with Lucas Ashby and Leo Lucini on bass, as well as guests such as Rogerio Souza, a famous seven-string guitarist, and a wonderful saxophonist from Brazil. I’ve been playing a lot of concerts with these musicians over the last year. Playing with them always gives me so much energy and joy. Arco Belo is also an ensemble that I formed during my residency last year at the Strathmore. It’s a mix of chamber music with contemporary influences, and jazz with global roots.

For the last two months, I have been having concerts every weekend here, and I go back to Toronto to study during the week. It’s very rewarding and enriching: all these projects are actually related to each other and to what I am studying—they cross pollinate in fascinating ways.

Daniela: What is the role of a female Jewish musician in today’s music world?

Simone: Being Jewish means having access to an incredible wellspring of musical tradition, and is a way of being and thinking. I studied Mishnah and Talmud before becoming a musician, and I’m convinced that that culture of inquiry and philosophy translated directly into my approach as a musician. The fact that I studied with my mother, a Roman Jew, instilled a strong sense of a cultural identity as well as pride in being a Jewish woman that I try to carry in my artistic voice.

Listening for me is a very feminine characteristic and for me the most important part of being a musician. In today’s world we are struggling with regression – we’re still battling sexism among others, and often we fail to listen to each other. Ultimately, there is quite a lot of work to be done since there are not many women musicians, composers, and conductors in the world, and as one of the composers on the Bina concert, Kaija Saariaho, puts it, “You know, half of humanity has something to say, also.”



About the Author: Daniela is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you! She is a “retired philosopher” who works as an executive assistant and loves to write about Italian and Jewish events happening in DC. She was born and raised in Sicily (Italy) in an interfaith family and moved to D.C. with her husband after studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where they met. They have a wonderful Siberian cat named Rambam! Daniela loves going to work while listening to Leonard Cohen’s songs and sometimes performs in a West African Dance group



The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Black and Jewish (song)

This video came out at the end July — a spoof on the popular rap song “Black and Yellow.”

Yes, I do love both Judaism and rap, but I’m not just sharing this with you because it hits 2 of my 7 passions (can you name the other 5?), but because it has already received many thousands of hits and is making a splash in the American Jewish community.

Love it or hate it?



RJ Brodsky rocks

As noted at GTJ last week, the DC Jewish community’s very own RJ Brodsky — and his band: Paul Pfau & the Dimestore Band — earned the chance to headline at the 9:30 club this past Friday.

The event exceeded even the high standards of the 9:30 club — a huge crowd, a great performance, and a bunch of young professional Jews.  As RJ put it, “The show was unbelievable!  Nothing beats getting on stage and moving people with the power of an original song played with all heart.”

Here’s a few pictures from the event along with a video clip of one of their songs from the night.












The Maccabeats sing to a packed crowd

Almost a dozen musical groups are performing in the Washington Jewish Musical Festival from June 9 -26.  But one group has always stood out on the event’s brochure:  The Maccabeats.

The Maccabeats sang last night for approximately an hour to a crowd of several hundred Jews at the Carnegie Institution for Science.   And yes, they did include their two most famous songs: The Purim Song (898,000 YouTube hits) and — after an encore pleading from the crowd — Candlelight (which now has over 5.3 million hits).

As told by the singers between numbers, the last few months have been a whirlwind adventure for the Maccabeats — they’ve played in venues across the globe (and they have upcoming performances in South Africa and London), and they recently performed at the White House and AIPAC’s annual policy conference.  The crowning glory of the group’s adventures, however, was undoubtedly their interview with Gather the Jews.

I enjoyed hearing some of the Maccabeats less famous songs, and I liked the group even more upon learning a bit about them — they’re fairly normal and likeable young guys who just happen to sing really well.  I also really liked the introductory lesson to beatboxing and harmonization that they offered.

But I will say that I had expected… a little more…

Maybe it’s because their YouTube version of Candelight is just so darn good.  Maybe it’s because the Maccabeats stood still last night and I was spoiled by the impressive choreo that I witnessed two months ago at Adas Israel’s Jewish a cappella competition (see, e.g. the first song from Kol Sasson of UMD).  Or maybe it’s because the Maccabeats seemed to be catering primarily to the under 15 audience (who were there in droves).

Nonetheless, it was a very good time, and the crowd definitely seemed to enjoy it (although GTJ staff member Sheryl Burstein was the only one who stood up and started dancing).

To learn more about the Maccabeats, you can go here.  To get the schedule for the remaining performances in the Washington Jewish Music Festival (and there are many!), go here.

Stephen Richer is a co-founder and director of Gather the Jews.







Heaven’s DJ: Exclusive Interview

I had a chance to catch up with the upcoming macher in the music world, Diwon, as well a chance to catch a few great words from one of his musical artists, Y-Love. Discover the roots of a producer and musician’s sole, and here from Y-Love about his favorite spots in DC, and his connection to Shavuot. Also check out their show this Sunday.

Sunday June 12th Live in D.C.

$4 D.C. Show @ Chief Ikes with Flex Matthews, Y-Love, Kosha Dillz, ill prophet & Diwon Live in D.C.
8pm doors $4 21+. Address: 1725 Columbia Road Northwest DC 20009 Facebook Event



GTJ: I know that you are CEO and also music aficionado/mixer/maker, as well as family man. How do you find time to do all that you do? Where did your story begin? What motivated your journey into music?

Diwon: Well, My first label began in 2001, called Modular Moods. Shemspeed grew out of that as a promotions company and label in 2007. The original concept was to work with the best Jewish artists, whether they are on Shemspeed records or not.  I think it was more niche in the beginning and over time has become a little more mainstream, more crossover and universal but still with a very strong positive Jewish message.

The focus with most of the artists on Shemspeed seem to be diversity and unity. I think we are breaking stereotypes and opening up peoples mind both in the Jewish and non-Jewish world. Our artists come from the perspective that we have more similarities than differences, lets focus on the similarities and collaborate on those! celebrate those, create more of those….That’s why you will see DeScribe, a Chassidic kid from Crown Heights who spend a lot of his day praying and learning Chabad Chassidut collaborating on tracks and videos with tons of different artists from Jamaica and Trinidad, including Bob Marley’s family. I think this wakes up all communities to our shared mission of perfecting the world and realizing that each of us is a piece of G-d. Shemspeed is all about signing and working with groups with positive and unifying messages, but with music that is appealing to a wide range, I guess you could call it cross over music. We don;t usually sign groups that would only appeal to the Jewish community, there are hard core religious labels that are generally homes to those groups.

We want to learn and build and inspire.  At the same time, we have artists that have Jewish messages and maybe middle eastern sounds, but non Jews who listen to it just look at it as, say, a hip hop CD.  We aren;t putting out albums that are klezmer hip hop and rapping in Yiddish, we don’t pick up the overtly niche. Once in a while we will release a side project like Shir HaShirim, but it is just that, a side project. …our main releases are way more ‘pop’ and mainstream in a sense…The reason for that is because our staff, like the majority of American youth, listen to hip hop and pop and things that move our culture and we like to mix our taste in music with our beliefs and ideals. We want to be a light unto the nations and have a powerful effect on the world, we see our music (instrumentally) as in line with what is moving the youth of today and our music (lyrically) in line with our mission as Jews to uplift and set an example. One of our touring artist that has been all over TV, Radio and magazines is Y-Love, a black Jewish artist from Baltimore, he along with myself (Diwon) make club music as way to get these messages out in mediums that the messages are lacking. We work with artists like Matisyahu, who is very inline with out mission which is creating global universal music from a specific and spiritual place and I think the world is seeing how badly this type of music and message is needed at this exact moment. Shemspeed is a conduit for this type of crossover music by Jewish musicians that speak to the world inspired by ancient texts and beliefs.

AND Y-Love was the first artist signed to Modular Moods/Shemspeed. The mixtape we made was probably one of the most original urban Jewish pieces to that day. It was a classic mixture that introduced Y-Love to the world. The MC dropped his lyrical skills over a genre smashing blended classic mixed by myself (Diwon). It mixed club music with indie rock and brazilian baile funk all with Torah inspired lyrics and even some Aramiac. One of the newest artists is Brody, an incredible Israeli singer who makes soul hip hop and r’n’b. His songs mix soulful vocals in Hebrew and English with hip hop head nodding beats and introspective lyrics.

GTJ: You have a great passion for music. What’s the root of your story? When did you first have that ‘Aha’ moment with music?

Diwon: I’m a Navy brat so I grew up in different cities and countries every few years. I was born in San Diego, CA and went to all sorts of schools throughout my early years…sometimes it was the Military school on the base and other times we would drive far for me to go to the Jewish school that was miles away, it really depended on the country and the Jewish options that were available.

Music keeps me excited about life, whenever life seems stale or repetitive I will hear music or make music that will reenergize me and get me excited about being a part of it all. The first memory I have with music being a part of my life was when my family was stationed in Naples, Italy and I was on the bus on the way to military school. The bus driver would have all these 8th graders play whatever they thought was cool at the time.  I got my parents to take me to the Commissary, I was 9 at the time, and I told them I wanted the  Montley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” tape. I was really into the tape, probably because it had reminded me of Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” cassette. I took it and told the driver to pop it in his tape deck. From that second on, every kid on my bus looked at me in a different light. That was the first time I saw music change how people viewed others.  In college I started to get into the klezmer fusions music that was being made in NYC at the Knitting Factory and Tonic via CD submissions that were being sent to the college station that I was a music director and DJ at, at the time. I started to really dig it, especially Masada which was John Zorn’s book of original Jewish compositions. Until I heard Masada, the only jazz that had been able to mess me up that bad (in a good way) was Ornette, Coltrane & Davis. I found 3 other people in college and eventually convinced a fourth that we should start a group (called Juez) that mixes break beat, punk, jazz and klezmer music and start playing house parties. People would dance as if they were at a Ska show and back in 2004 or so we started playing with Matisyahu and when I moved to NY I would DJ, play drums in that band and put my other musician and artist friends on the bill.  When I saw how people felt like they were a part of something fresh and were excited about Jewish expression, I myself started to get more and more into it.  I met an aspiring rapper back in 2001 while studying outside the old city of Jerusalem, his name was Yitz Jordan and at about that time I wanted to put together Jewish hip hop like no one had ever heard. I remember telling Yitz who started going by Y-Love, that if he is ready to start really working on rap and recording, we could make the most amazing music the Jewish world has ever heard.  We put together a mixtape called ‘dj handler presents Y-Love’ back when I went by dj handler and not Diwon.  The mixtape blended old school hip hop, brazilian funk, soul, electronic tracks and indie rock with Y-Love rapping about everything from the national Jewish population survey to his talmudic studies in Aramiac. I still look back at that mixtape and feel that it captured a time in Jewish history. Since then I think that my work with Shemspeed, Y-Love and Matisyahu’s work has all become even stronger but not through becoming more niche or overt in the messages of the music, quite the opposite, I think it is stronger because the music has become more universal, it is music for the world, while still being naturally infused with positive messages and Jewish thoughts.  I still love to release music that is niche, such as cinematic instrumental music, and niggunim records and the Sephardic Music Festival CD, but I like to balance that with music that is pop and for the radio.  There is something strong about a track that’s sort of ‘radio music’ pop that has a Jewish message. I see my mission with Shemspeed to produce music and programming that reflects our mission as Jews of being a light unto the nations.

I have always thrived on collaboration and I always have a dozen collaborative projects that I am either producing or playing on at any given moment.  As far as how it began…..In college I was writing songs on my guitar and playing this sort of experimental music with a drummer friend, but meanwhile I was really into the hip hop scene that was happening around me and the university.  I was a DJ and music director at the college for 4 years and was blown away by a few of the artists that were in school with me. At the radio station I was the recipient of tons and tons of albums and press releases of bands trying to break it into the mainstream through the college market. I started to get a feel for the whole promo game and what works and what totally did not.  Meanwhile I started booking shows for my band with some of the hip hop groups, I was getting press and selling out shows and so there was a sort of buzz going around.  I thought instead of releasing my CDs as glorified CDrs, I should take it on more professionally, press up the CDs with a UPC, amazing artwork the kind that begs you to open the CD and then I put together a marketing and college promo campaign….with the very first release we hit the top 10 hip hop charts.  After, that everything started to come together. more people wanted to collab and I wanted to take what I learned and help as many groups as I could. Of course, only groups that blew me away, at the time Educated Consumers and bellflur and then my own band, Juez.  Since those days I started Shemspeed as the public face for all that we do and have since toured the world and put out incredible music with incredible artist. THis winter we kick off our 7th annual Sephardic Music Festival!

GTJ: I know you guys also work with Matisyahu. What’s up on
your work with him?


Diwon: Well, our first release of his was on our Sephardic Music Festival CD, an amazing track he did with a Yemenite chorus by the singer of Moshav. Then he asked me to produce his “Miracle” music video and I was glad to and finally, we released a collaboration of DeScribe and him for special needs kids. you could check the video at Lots more to come, we love Matis and beyond being a collaborative artists on Shemspeed, he is on our advisory board 😉

Y-Love Interview

GTJ: So Y-Love, shavuout just came up. Any reflections and connections with your “this is unity” song and the message of the holiday? 

Y-Love: We know from Kabbalistic philosophy that “the King will not sit on a broken chair” – If we want divine blessings to come to us, if we want G-d to “come down and sit on His throne” in this world, the chair has to be whole; the people must come together in unity. Before the torah was given, the people camped together as one – how could the torah be given to people in discord with divisions? Unity is a prerequisite.

GTJ: So I know you sometimes frequent DC when you’re not in the big city. What are some of the places you love about DC? Any place in particular? 

Y-Love: I love dc nightlife of course, but honestly one thing I love about dc is the embassies and consulates. Seeing people from all over the world come together even for quick lunches – I love seeing things like that. plus im addicted topolitics – I scream at the tv watching c-span like it’s the world cup – so i dig the whole k street/capitol hill vibe too.