"When I was a child I remember my parents used to play an old Hanukkah record with school children singing out of tune and a bad piano player." says Erran Baron Cohen. Now, the musician known for his "world beat fusion" music has released a Hanukkah album that can be enjoyed by children as well as hipsters.
Songs in The Key of Hanukkah is a compilation album features musicians from the funky rapper Y-Love to the world-beat feel of Yasmin Levy and Idan Reichel to new folk acoustic versions of Rock of Ages. Baron Cohen, whose brother is the star of the hit movie Borat, spoke with Israel National Radio's Ben Bresky about Hanukkah, recording in Germany and cool Jewish music.
Question: Tell us about the new album.
Answer: It's aimed at adult audience but kids also love it. Half of the album is reworked, updated Hanukkah classics like Dreidel, Hanukkah O Hanukkah and Sivivon, and half are new original tracks written especially for the album. We were very lucky to work with some great artists including Idan Reichel and Yasmin Levy. In New York we worked with Y-Love who is a Black Jewish Hasidic rapper. In London I worked with my friend, the great singer Jules Brookes and Avivit Caspi who is also sings with my band Zohar.
Question: What is the Idan Reichel track Relics of Love and Light about?
Answer: It's quite an emotional track with the theme of light. I recorded it in Tel Aviv this summer. Avivit Caspi sings on it as well. She's Israeli and she sang the Israeli national anthem at Wembley Station when Israel played there.
Question: How did you start the band Zohar and get involved in Jewish music?
Answer: Zohar started when I was writing music for a play that my friends were showing in London. It had some Jewish themes and identity in it. I basically fused Hazanut with middle eastern beats and electronic texture. It got really good reception including being a bit of a hit in Israel. Later on, I got on the Buddha Bar compilation album from this French club in Paris. It was quite a big album at the time. We had two international album on Miles Copeland's label. We toured around the world which was good fun. In terms of music, I've always been doing music since I was a kid being in bands.
Question: Let's talk about your famous brother Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the characters Borat and Ali G. Are you also funny?
Answer: I'm much funnier then him actually. We've all got a bit of a sense of humor.
Question: Do you experience people coming up to you because of the movie or any brushes with fame?
Answer: I wrote the music for the Borat movie and was very involved with the film from that point of view and was at the premier. It was all great fun and interesting.
Question: Do you have any interesting stories from the recording sessions for the Hanukkah album or any concerts?
Answer: Well the Hanukkah album was recorded in three different places. One was in my studio in London, another was in Berlin, Germany where I met Y-Love who is this New York based rapper but he was doing a gig in Berlin. I said to him, you're Black, we're both Jewish, and we're doing a Hanukkah album in Berlin. That's pretty weird. That was an interesting experience.
Question: Who showed up at the concert?
Answer: Well there's a growing Jewish community there. So some of those people and just general interested people. He did a couple of gigs in Berlin actually. I recorded with Idan Reichel in Tel Aviv with some different musicians which was nice. The rest was done in London.
Y-Love and Erran Baron Cohen
Question: There's a lot of children's Hanukkah music. What inspires you and what turns you off? I know when I was 15 there certainly wasn't any Jewish hasidic rap. Were you trying to create the thing you wish existed when you were 15?
Answer: Up to now, most Hanukkah albums have been aimed at children. Songs like Dreidel and Sivivon are like nursery rhymes. The idea was to make a really cool, well produced, adult album. But I've found with my own kids, they really love it because they recognized the tunes. Like Dreidel and Sivion, which on this album is called Spin It Up. It's like a new concept in Jewish music. To actually make it interesting and cool. When I was a child I remember my parents used to play an old Hanukkah record with school children singing out of tune and a bad piano player. I remember not enjoying it even as a kid. So I hope this album is a bit more enjoyable to listen to for adults but also for all ages.
Y-Love and Erran Baron Cohen in the studio.
Question: Besides your kids, what has the reaction been to the album?
Answer: A lot of Jewish and non-Jewish people love it. It's a catchy tune. When I knew one of the tunes was going to have to be Dreidel, I was quite worried about working on it because I think the original Dreidel is one of the most boring and uninteresting tunes ever written. So what I did was put it into a minor key and added this hip-hop beat and Balkan Gypsy sound. The reaction has been great. We are going to perform it on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in New York this week. There is also a YouTube video that's getting interest.
Question: What is your family background? Are you parents Israeli?
Answer: My mother is Israeli and my dad is British. We had a traditional Jewish upbringing. I went to Israel many, many times as a kid and loved it and heard a lot of good music there. We are more traditional then religious. I love the lighting of candles and the Shabbat.
Idan Reichel and Erran Baron Cohen
Question: What project are you working on next?
Answer: The next project is the score of Bruno which is my brother's new film.
Question: Is Bruno the fashion model?
Answer: Yes, the gay fashion model.
Question: I can only imagine.
Answer: It's better not to imagine at this stage. I hope after this Hanukkah album we can start to expand Jewish cultural music in this way and have albums people can enjoy at any age.
For more information on Songs in the Key of Hanukkah visit www.songsinthekeyofhanukkah.com
Ben Bresky is a music journalist and host of The Beat on Arutz Sheva - Israel National Radio. His blog and show archives can be found at /Radio/Author.aspx/1180