SCOTT SIMON, host:
The warmth of the holiday season is the return each year of special traditions, stories you tell, foods you eat or sometimes try to avoid, and the songs you sing.
(Soundbite of song "Dreidel")
Unidentified Children: (Singing) I have a little Dreidel, I made it out of clay...
SIMON: But who says you can't fold in some new traditions, too?
(Soundbite of song "Dreidel")
JULES BROOKES & Y-LOVE: (Singing) Dreidel, Dreidel, I made it out of clay And when I'n good and ready Dreidel I'm gonna play Oh, Dreidel Oh, Dreidel...
SIMON: That's "Dreidel," in a different key from Erran Baron Cohen's eclectic new album, "Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah." If that names sounds kind of familiar, he is, in fact, the brother of Sacha Baron Cohen, also known as Borat and Ali G. And if you've seen those films, then you have also heard Erran Baron Cohen's music because he provided it for his brother's films. Erran Baron Cohen joins us now from London. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. ERRAN BARON COHEN (Composer): Great to be here.
SIMON: Do I understand this right? This came about because some music executive couldn't find what he thought was a good Hanukkah album for his father?
Mr. COHEN: Yeah. I was in L.A. quite a lot last year. I met Jason, and he's head of New Line Records, and we were sort of talking about the idea of doing a Hanukkah album that was not for kids, that would be really well-produced and have really cool songs for the whole family. Up to this point, I remember from my childhood listening to Hanukkah songs at home and listening to these children singing slightly out of key and some wonky old piano player joining them to make a terrible record.
But I enjoyed it as a three-year-old, but after that it became a bit annoying. So the idea was to create a new concept in Jewish holiday music, something that everybody would enjoy listening to.
SIMON: Well, let's listen to another cut, if we could. This one sure gets 10 for danceability and nine, pretty high mark for historical content.
(Soundbite of song "My Hanukkah (Keep the Fire Alive)")
Y-LOVE & DANA KERSTEIN (Rapping) The year was 3622. Oh, God is like you. Bring the whole army to the smoke, for Hebrews, Yochanan Kohen Gadol retained control. High priest enlisted the sake of national soul. After 84 years of oppressive injustice you'd think that Yehuda and Shimon wouldn't crush this. Guerilla warfare for 36 months, 40,000 soldiers couldn't take out one. Oppressed by nobody, took back the authority. Revolution, dissolution against the majority. The legislation came to make a pay in conformity. So we had to project that influence category. Criminalize a religion, outlaw circumcision, hey you're gonna make a chap of God become what he isn't. Stand against the division, righteous acts of sedition, take strategic decisions and defend the tradition. The tradtion. The tradition...(ph)
SIMON: I love that.
Mr. COHEN: Thank you very much. Yeah, that track was recorded with a great New York-based rapper called Y-Love, who's a base in New York, black rapper but converted to Orthodox Judaism, and he raps in Yiddish as well as English and Aramaic, so it's quite amazing to work with him. And he made it even more interesting because we ended up recording him in Berlin, where he was doing a gig. And it just became very - a very surreal experience as a result.
SIMON: A generalization that I want to get your reaction to, if I could, Mr. Baron Cohen. It seems to me that a lot of Christmas songs - not all of them, obviously - but a lot of Christmas songs are about the holiday season but not about the religious event. Hanukkah songs are different.
Mr. COHEN: Less people, I think, think of their historical context. And that was something that I wanted to look into. And in that particular song with Y-Love, "Keep the Fire Alive," we look at the actual amazing and terrible story of the - some of the history of this festival, which, you know, a lot of people don't really necessarily think about. It's quite a sad story but also quite hopeful. It's about coming out of oppression, fighting tyranny, which, you know, are universal things that's very relevant for today.
(Soundbite of music)
Y-LOVE: (Rapping) My Hanukkah, zos Hanukkah, whole mikdash back up my harmonica. Illumination, scintillation, a nation awakened against assimilation(ph)...
SIMON: So how many different influences are in this album?
Mr. COHEN: I'm not sure. All I know is when I write music, I have a lot of different influences. I'm classically trained. I play trumpet. I was very into Miles Davis. I was in a rock band in school, and I was into Talking Heads and early electronic music, as well as playing in orchestras classically. So all or some of those influences come into the music I'm writing. And they - they're all somehow there in this album.
SIMON: Let just do another cut, if we could here. And I think you're the trumpet on this, if I'm not mistaken.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah, I probably would be, yeah.
SIMON: "Spin It Up."
(Soundbite of song "Spin It Up")
JULES BROOKS: (Singing) Spin it up, spin it up, up, up. Spin it up. I want to rise to the top...
SIMON: Am I wrong to hear a suggestion of Herb Alpert in your trumpet technique?
Mr. COHEN: He was a great trumpet player, so thank you very much for that compliment. I was - on that track I'm actually playing a flugelhorn, which is a kind of softer kind of sound than a normal trumpet. And I think Herb Alpert also played that occasionally.
SIMON: Of course, for many people, the persisting image of Hanukkah has to do with the lights that build up night after night to eight candles. And I want to play a clip of the song - and you pointedly title the song in Spanish, don't you?
Mr. COHEN: Is it "A La Luz De La Vela"?
SIMON: Exactly, yes.
Mr. COHEN: We worked with the great singer, Yasmin Levy. He's a diva on the world music scene. He sings in Ladino, which is Judeo-Spanish, and on this track in Spanish.
(Soundbite of song "A La Luz De La Vela")
Mr. YASMIN LEVY: (Singing) (Spanish-spoken)
SIMON: Of course, in English, that would be In the Light of the Candles.
Mr. COHEN: Yes, that's right.
SIMON: And is that - is that a memory that stays with you?
Mr. COHEN: Certainly, I think, as a child, and you know, I know that with my children, the lighting, it's an amazingly powerful ritual that, you know, lighting candles that which - and one extra every day is a very somehow spiritual thing to do. So it is the sort of overriding image of Hanukkah, I think.
SIMON: I'm told we have a special guest who's joining us now.
Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN (Actor): Hello.
SIMON: Is this Sacha Baron Cohen?
Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN: It is, indeed.
SIMON: Well, nice to talk to you. I believe you gentleman have known each other all your lives.
Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN: Yes, we're related.
SIMON: And Sacha Baron Cohen, are you ever confused with the figure skater?
Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN: Often, often. Only because of my figure, though. Only when I'm wearing shorts.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Is it tricky to be brothers who work together?
Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN: I don't think so. I mean, we've always really worked together. We used to do a sort of cabaret stand-up act around London. We used to dress us as Hasidic Jews, and we had a song called "Shvitzing," which means sweating. And it was basically - the song was about a couple of Hasids dressed in their traditional garb who start walking down the street on a sunny day and start sweating so much that eventually they take one thing off, then another until they finally convert to Christianity.
(Soundbite of laughter)
There's a bit of a leap there. I mean, I can't go through the whole thing.
Mr. ERRAN BARON COHEN: I think just being brothers mean we just have an extra understanding. You know, certainly when scoring movies, you know, having understanding with the producer or director or actors, it's very important. And you know, working with Sacha, obviously, he's very musical as well. That helps a lot, I think.
Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN: You know, the great thing is that I have the creative trust of my brother. So for example, we at one point during "Borat," we neeed a Kazakhstani national anthem because we couldn't play the actual one. And I just called up Erran and said, we need one for tomorrow morning, and we need to have a 50-strong Kazakhstani choir singing it. And Erran basically stayed up all night, wrote it and sang all 50 parts, you know. And I - in the morning, it came back and it was funny but it was real, as well. You really believed that this could be the Kazakhsatni national anthem, even though it was Erran just singing alone in a room in the middle of the night.
SIMON: I found that song quite moving. actually.
(Soundbite of song "O Kazakhstan")
Mr. ERRAN BARON COHEN: (Singing) Kazakhstan greatest country in the world...
Mr. ERRAN BARON COHEN: It is an emotional song. It was kind of based in Russian military, the mast voice singers of the Russian army kind of sound. But it was actually just me singing alone, just multi-tracked about 40 times.
SIMON: There are millions of American and Britons who, for better or for worse, acquire the impression that Hanukkah is some kind of Jewish Christmas, and of course, it's not. And I wonder if each of you could tell us what the holiday means to you.
Mr. ERRAN BARON COHEN: For me, it's, you know, a family occasion. Eating a couple of doughnuts, sings some songs. Hopefully now with my album, we've got a couple of more songs to sing.
Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN: But you know, it's also a festival that brings in the themes of rebellion and freedom and some celebration of identity.
SIMON: Well, gentlemen, thank you both very much...
Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN: All right, thank you very much for having me on.
SIMON: For being with us.
Mr. ERRAN BARON COHEN: Thank you so much.
SIMON: Sacha Baron Cohen in Los Angeles, Erran Baron Cohen in London. His new album is "Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah." And you can hear more of Erran Baron Cohen's Hanukkah songs on our Web site, nprmusic.org.
And you're listening to Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.