From Baron Cohen, Hanukkah Songs In A New Key Composer Erran Baron Cohen's latest CD offers a new take on traditional sounds. He talks about the album — and about collaborating with his brother Sacha Baron Cohen on the movie Borat.
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From Baron Cohen, Hanukkah Songs In A New Key

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From Baron Cohen, Hanukkah Songs In A New Key

From Baron Cohen, Hanukkah Songs In A New Key

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. If the name of my guest, Erran Baron Cohen, reminds you of the name Sacha Baron Cohen, it's because they're brothers. Erran is a composer and trumpet player who leads the world beat band, Zohar. He wrote original music for Sacha's TV series, "Da Ali G Show," and for Sacha's movie, "Borat," including the great anthem, "O Kazakhstan." Erran's new project is a CD of Hanukkah music featuring original songs as well as traditional songs reinterpreted as hip-hop and world music. Before we meet him, let's hear the opening track of his new CD, "Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah." This is "Hanukkah oh Hanukkah."

(Soundbite of song "Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah")

Y-LOVE & JULES BROOKES: (Singing) And while we are playing The candles are burning low One for each night, we share the sweet light To remind us of days long ago While we are playing The candles are burning low One for each night, they share the the sweet light To remind us of days long ago

Hanukkah, Hanukkah A yom tov, a sheina A lichtega a freilicha Nishte nach a z3ina Ale nacht, mit dreidelach Shpilin a la kinderlach, Essen latkes zoltzin mit Shemen en de hantelach(ph)

Hanukkah, Hanukkah A yom tov, a sheina Lichtega a freilicha Nishte nach a zeina Ale nacht, mit dreidelach Shpilin a la kinderlach Geshpilin der kinder(ph) (unintelligible)

Celebrate the salvation eight holy nights Forty-four nights makes the whole world bright We'd like to commemorate them bygone days And we spin it to remember that a nes(ph) took place If just one little can Can burn for eight days Then there ain't a situation from which God can't save

Take the shine from the light And the sufganiya In those days in these times Celebrating Hanukkah...

GROSS: Erran Baron Cohen, welcome to Fresh Air. The only Hanukkah song I know is "Dreidel," which you do on the CD and which we'll hear in a moment. But is the song we just heard a traditional song that you've redone or is it a song you wrote? I don't even know.

ERRAN BARON COHEN (Composer): Yes, so the way the album works is half the tracks in the album are reworkings and often very transformed versions of original Hanukkah tunes, and half are original, you know, specially written for this album. So the "Hanukkah oh Hanukkah" is an old Yiddish Hanukkah tune, which is sort of Klezmer-influenced tune, and it's now transformed with a reggae influence and an amazing rapper, Y-Love, who raps in Yiddish on it, as well.

GROSS: I will say, I knew the rap part wasn't a traditional song.

Mr. COHEN: That's right. The Yiddish rapping is not a traditional, you know, Klezmer-type thing that was going on, you know, 200 years ago in Europe, as far as I know.

GROSS: Tell us about Y-Love, the rapper who we just heard.

Mr. COHEN: Well, he's a New York-based rapper, a black rapper, and he converted to Judiasm, went to Yeshiva in Jerusalem and learned to speak Hebrew and Yiddish. And it was quite amazing, you know, hooking up with him. In fact, he was doing a gig in Berlin, and I've got a friend with a studio in Berlin so we actually met in Berlin, and I met him on the day of the recording. I said, we're in Berlin. We're two Jews. You're black. I said, it's pretty interesting and we're writing Hanukkah music. I said, it's pretty unusual circumstance, and then we recorded two tracks in Berlin, which are on the album.

GROSS: You know, it's kind of sad, you know. Christmas music has this great tradition of songs - religious songs, pop tunes, including "White Christmas," written by that great Jewish songwriter, Irving Berlin, who didn't do the Jews a favor by writing a Hanukkah song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Never wrote a great Hanukkah song. Do you find that kind of sad, in a way, that Hanukkah does not have this, like, great tradition of songs and maybe you know of a great vast tradition of, you know, a tradition...

Mr. COHEN: No, there is no...

GROSS: Of a vast number of songs that I'm not familiar with?

Mr. COHEN: Yes, there's not really a tradition. You know, I'm hoping this album is going to be a start of maybe, you know, that kind of tradition of writing some great songs for Hanukkah, which people will have for years to come.

I think, you know, from a purely, you know, mercenary, commercial viewpoint, you know, Irving Berlin did the right thing because you know, writing "White Christmas" was a big hit and obviously a bigger audience. But you know, Hanukkah is kind of the first album which is trying to do something like that for this festival.

GROSS: Well, let's listen to your reworking of the only Hanukkah song I know, which is "Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay." Tell us why you chose this song and what you've done with it.

Mr. COHEN: Yes. So when I was thinking about tracks to put on this album, the obvious tracks - one of the most obvious tracks was "Dreidel," you know, the very famous song - almost nursery rhyme that we all know.

I know it's very loved here, but I've always found it, even as a kid, a slightly annoying little track. So I was wondering how to sort of transform it. And what I did was put hip-hop beats on it, added a gypsy, Balkan influence. And you know, we have something that's completely different and yet has that - the joy of Hanukkah with it.

GROSS: So this is "Dreidel" from Erran Baron Cohen's new CD, "Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah."

(Soundbite of song "Dreidel")

Y-LOVE & JULES BROOKES: (Singing) Dreidel, dreidel I made it out of clay And when you are ready Dreidel I'm gonna play

Dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay And when I'm good and ready Dreidel I'm gonna play

Oh dreidel, oh, dreidel, oh, dreidel Oh dreidel...

Dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay And when I'm good and ready Dreidel I'm gonna play

Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel I made it out of clay And when I'm good and ready Dreidel I'm gonna play

GROSS: That's a reworking of "Dreidel" from Erran Baron Cohen's album, "Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah." Tell us about the singer who we heard on that, Jules Brookes.

Mr. COHEN: So Jules Brookes is a friend of mine that I've known for many years. And he's on quite a lot of the tracks on the album, and he's sounding a little bit like Freddie Mercury there, that's according to some people on the Internet. He's done a very intense rendition of this track which is, you know, gives a great energy. And we just recently just performed it on Conan O'Brien's show, which was great fun. He was here with me in New York.

GROSS: And I have to say, when you performed it on Conan, you were all dressed like you were, you know, Orthodox, you know, Hasidic Jews. You were wearing the long beards and the black hats and the long, black jackets. Why did you decide to do that? I mean, it was all costuming, it's not the way you look.

Mr. COHEN: No, no. Well, I can grow beards very quickly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: But you're right. You're right. There was quite a bit of costuming involved. It just seemed like a very, you know, unusual and fun way to do it. We had a great band, you know, sort of the DJ, drummer and a base all dressed in that costume as well. And you know, we're singing Hanukkah songs, it seemed like a good way to do it. It's sort of a bit - sort of Jewish ZZ Top.

GROSS: That's right. That's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

My guest is Erran Baron Cohen. His new CD of Hanukkah music is called "Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah." We'll talk more about his Hanukkah music and about collaborating with his brother, Sacha Baron Cohen, after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Erran Baron Cohen. He's written music for his brother Sacha Baron Cohen's TV series, "Da Ali G Show," and his movie, "Borat." Erran has a new CD called "Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah," featuring new songs and reinterpreted traditional songs.

Let's hear another song from your new CD of Hanukkah songs, and this is called "Ocho Kandelikas," which translates to Eight Candles. Tell us about this song and the person singing it.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, so it's called "Ocho Kandalikas," I think.

GROSS: Thank you for correcting my pronunciation.

Mr. COHEN: It's - it's - although that may not be, you know, the most - it's in a language called Ladino, which is a Spanish/Judaic/Judeo language. It's a bit like Yiddish. It's the European Jewish language. So part of what I wanted to do in this album was take some of the other traditions in Jewish music and look at them and try and bring them forth. So this song is a very popular Ladino Hanukkah song.

We were very lucky to have an amazing singer singing it, Yasmin Levy, who is a diva on the world music scene and an expert in Ladino singing. And we've done, you know, a version - again, it's going to transform from its original place into something completely new now.

GROSS: And what kind of musical setting did you want to do for this?

Mr. COHE: It's got, you know, a lot of my music I like to mix lots of influences together and take music to new places by almost mixing old with new. So you know, we've got this old Ladino song sung in this ancient Spanish language, Ladino language, and it's mixed with electronic influences and textures and beats. A bit of - there's a bit of accordion, sort of tango influence, as well, and also Flamenco, there's a bit of Flamenco acoustic guitar.

GROSS: And what are you doing on this track?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I'm playing - I suppose I'm the producer. I put it all together, the programming, the drum stuff. I think I'm playing piano on that track, and I think I'm shaking some maracas at one point, as well.

GROSS: OK. So this is singer Yasmin Levy from the new album, "Erran Baron Cohen Presents: Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah."

(Soundbite of song "Ocho Kandalikas")

Mr. YASMIN LEVY: (Singing) (Ladino spoken)

GROSS: That's music from my guest Erran Baron Cohen's new CD, "Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah," and it's a reworking of traditional Hanukkah songs as well as some originals.

What was the kind of music that you grew up in? You know, you also have, in addition to this, like, Hanukkah CD, you have a Ben Zohar that does a lot of, like, music that's influenced by world music and hip-hop and electronica. What did you grow up with?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I played piano and trumpet, you know, growing up. I was in school bands. I was - I listened to a lot of pop music, people are talking - quite unusual stuff. I mean, Talking Heads, King Crimson, Jean-Michel Jarre was electronic, I think Craftwork was very important, the German techno bands. And at the same time, I also played trumpet in school orchestras, studied that classically, and then later I got - I saw Miles Davis play in London, and you know, I started playing jazz trumpet and got heavy influenced by that kind of influence as well. So there's a whole multi-faceted kind of musical heritage in what I do, and I try and bring that to everything I do.

GROSS: And of course, there's a lot of hip-hop influence in your music.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. In fact, I did see Afrika Bambaataa perform in London as well. It was one of the first hip-hop gigs in London when I was pretty young. So, yes, certainly that was also important influence as well.

GROSS: Were you exposed to interesting cantorial music in synagogues when you were young?

Mr. COHEN: Yes. So, with my band, Zohar, I combined Jewish cantorial singing with Arabic textures and electronic beats, drum and bass, hip-hop beats. And you know, I remember as a kid being in the temple and listening to - we were lucky to have a great cantor who sang on the High Holidays. And I always remember, you know, even not understanding all the words he was saying but understanding kind of the feeling that was - you know, it was really like hearing great soul music coming from the soul, you know. And I realized that people like - later on, that people like Aretha Franklin and all the great, you know, gospel singers that have that same element to their voice. And I was interested in taking and seeing what other cultures have their element, you know, in their voices. So I used that in Zohar.

GROSS: Is there a track from "Do You Have Any Faith" that you think epitomizes what you have been describing about trying to use, you know, cantorial music and world music and mix it together?

Mr. COHEN: I suppose, you know, the first track, "Let There Be Light," has a Klezmer clarinet, which is sort of almost something out that you may have heard in, you know, 100 years ago, and suddenly brought it into the clubs with the, you know, surrounded with electronic stuff and beats. So that's very much the kind of thing I like to do musically.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is from Erran Baron Cohen's band, Zohar, their album, "Do You Have Any Faith."

(Soundbite of song "Let There Be Light")

GROSS: That's my guest Erran Baron Cohen's band, Zohar. And Erran Baron Cohen has a new CD of Hanukkah music. Your band, Zohar, is named after one of the texts in the mystical Jewish tradition known as Kabbalah. Why did you name your band Zohar?

Mr. COHEN: Yes. So because Zohar, you know, has - the original songs that I did on the first album was very influenced by Jewish cantorial music mixed with Arabic singing and textures and then electronics. So I was taking these very old vinyl records of cantorial music, which were like about 100 years old, and you know, sampling it and then manipulating the voice. But somehow, it had a very spiritual and, you know, historic kind of feeling to the whole sound, and then suddenly that was then brought into like almost a new century with what I was doing. So Zohar, which is this central chapter of the Kabbalah, seemed like a good name.

GROSS: Did you and your brother collaborate on music or sketches when you were growing up?

Mr. COHEN: Yes. We always used to make up little songs, comedy songs, actually, on Friday night. We - I would often play the piano, and we would often sort of joke around, just making up silly songs. One song that came out of that was a song that we wrote called "Shivtzin'(ph)," which is the Yiddish word to sweat, and it was basically about these Hasidic Jews that have to wear all the black clothes and the shirts and the vests and the hats even in the heat of summer, and as a result, they're sweating or they're shvitzing the whole time. So we actually ended up performing that round a lot of clubs in London, and the BBC even filmed us doing that.

GROSS: Can you sing a few bars of it?

Mr. COHEN: It starts off with this guy kind of walking down the street, so...

(Singing) So, I valk down the street. I'm vearing my Speedo svim trunks.

Mr. COHEN: I'm just trying to remember the words because we haven't done it for about 20 years. But the chorus is...

(Singing) Shvitzin', shvitzin' in my arm pitzin'...

Mr. COHEN: Something like that, anyway. It was a bit crazy. And following up it was sort of the idea, you know, part of the idea of us doing the video form for "Dreidel" it was - came out of that original skit we did.

GROSS: Oh, because of like the orthodox...

Mr. COHEN: The Hasidic.

GROSS: The Hasidic clothes that you wear.

Mr. COHEN: Yes. Exactly. So, you know, we used to that together a long time ago.

GROSS: So are you observant? Are you an observant Jew or just, you know, more interested in the cultural aspects, in the musical aspects of Judaism?

Mr. COHEN: I'm - you know, I suppose I'm more traditional than observant. So I love all the traditions of, you know, the Friday night lighting of candles, Hanukkah, you know, the festivals, and I also have kids now of my own, and they love learning about all the stories to do with the festivals and all the little rituals is something they really enjoy. So you know, that's something I feel is really important. And I go to Israel a lot, and obviously, the music has been a big influence on my work. So, all those...

GROSS: You have family in Israel, right? You have a grandparent there?

Mr. COHEN: That's right. That's right, and cousins and...

GROSS: And your mother grew up in Israel?

Mr. COHEN: Yes. That's right.

GROSS: So what kind of music were you exposed to there? Were you exposed to Arab music as well as Israeli music?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. I do remember, like, you know, catching lots of buses in the bus station in Tel Aviv growing as a kid and hearing, you know, the more Arabic-influenced music and really enjoying that. Because your Jewish music has, you know, there's the European Jews, the Ashkenazi Jews, as they're known, who have, you know, who were influenced more by European music. And there there's the Sephardi Jews who came from the Arab countries, and they have, you know, their music just basically used all the influences from the Arab countries. And so there's these two very, very different traditions of music, and I love somehow fusing them together and seeing similarities rather than differences.

GROSS: Erran Baron Cohen will be back in the second half of the show. His new CD is called "Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah." Here's another song from it. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross, back with musician and composer Erran Baron Cohen. He has a new CD of Hanukkah music called "Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah," featuring original songs as well as traditional ones that he's reinterpreted as hip-hop and world beat. He leads the world beatband, Zohar. Let's get to another side of his work, which you may know from "Da Ali G Show" and the movie, "Borat," two of his brother's creations.

You've collaborated with your brother, Sacha Baron Cohen, and you collaborated, for instance, on the movie "Borat." You wrote some of the music for the film. What did you do to get into the spirit of writing music that sounded like it could have from Kazakhstan but was also funny at the same time?

Mr. COHEN: Right. So "Borat," actually, what we did in "Borat" was to actually - the biggest influence on the music was - came from Romanian gypsy music, which I knew quite a lot about because I used to play in a Klezmer band in London for many years, which had a very strong Eastern European influence, so I knew quite a lot about that style of music.

We didn't use much Kazakhstani influence in the actual - in the actual film. You know, later on, I was asked by the Kazakhstani Philharmonic Orchestra to write a symphony, which was an interesting experience. And for that, I brought in a lot of Kazakhstani instruments and influence. But for "Borat," it was mainly based on Romanian gypsy music, which I, you know, which was great fun. And I also, for that movie, I also wrote a - you know, I had to write the new Kazakhstani national anthem.

GROSS: Yes, "O Kazakhstan."

Mr. COHEN: "O Kazakhstan," which was, you know, I got a call one night from the film guys. And they said, look, we can't get permission to use the actual real national anthem. Can you write one and we need it tomorrow. So I spent all night, I spent all night in my studio composing the song that finishes off "Borat." And actually, because it was in the middle of the night, I couldn't get anyone to sing it. So I sang all the parts, which were about - there are about 40 vocal parts there, sounds like a mast(ph) choir singing it.

GROSS: Oh, so that's all you.

Mr. COHEN: That's all me singing, yeah. It was a good night's work, as they say.

GROSS: Tell us what went through your mind as you were writing it, like what you were drawing on. You said Romanian gypsy music, but I mean, this is - this is more of a march.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. For that particular - for the actual anthem, it was the kind of more Soviet - there was obviously the Soviet influence, slightly militaristic, as you said. And a bit like this sort of the mast voices of the Soviet army. That was kind of what was in my head.

GROSS: Did you know that music or did you have to quickly find some and listen to it before starting to write?

Mr. COHEN: I had - I've got some - I had some recordings of some of that stuff, so...

GROSS: How come you had recordings of that? Like, most people don't have that in their library.

Mr. COHEN: No. You know, again, you know, for the initial research for - when I was starting to write the music to "Borat," I was listening to a lot of, you know, gypsy music, a lot of Russian music and some Kazakhstani music. And you know, just to get a feel for the kinds of sounds that may be useful. And then sometimes you get, you know, as happened here, you get the call and you suddenly have to write something in a certain style style and, you know, within 24 hours, so you have to be ready.

GROSS: So you're singing all the parts on the national anthem. Are you playing all the instruments, too?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. I basically had to do an orchestral arrangement, which again, I couldn't get an orchestra in the middle of the night, so I did it - I put that together in my studio, electronically arranged it, wrote it and sang all the parts. And they had it in the morning.

GROSS: And what about the lyrics? The lyrics were written by your brother, Sacha Baron Cohen, yes?

Mr. COHEN: Yes. So they had some - they had - they did have, you know, lyrics.

GROSS: They had the lyrics already. And you had...

Mr. COHEN: And they said, can you put - can you write an anthem around these lyrics? That was the idea.

GROSS: Well, good work.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Let's hear "O Kazakhstan," and this is Erran Baron Cohen doing all the vocals and all the instruments. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song "O Kazakhstan")

Mr. COHEN: (Singing) Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan you very nice place. From plains of Darashik to northern fence of Jewtown. Kazakhstan friend of all except Uzbekistan, a very nosy people with bone in their brain. Kazakhstan industry best in world, we invented toffee and trouser pants. Kazakhstan's prostitutes cleanest in the region. Except of course for too many scars. Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan, you very nice place. From plains of Darashik to northern fence of Jewtown. Come grasp the mighty penis of our leader. From junction with the testes to tip of its face!

GROSS: That's "O Kazakhstan," one of the songs that Erran Baron Cohen wrote for his brother Sacha Baron Cohen's movie, "Borat." That's really such a wonderful and really funny song. And of course, one of the lines in the song is "Kazakhstan's prostitutes, cleanest in the region."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Yes. Yeah.

GROSS: And so after writing a song like this, you got a call from a Kazakhstan symphony commissioning you to write an orchestral piece. And I can't help but wonder, after writing a national anthem like this, a satirical national anthem, why would the symphony call you and ask you to write a piece for them?

Mr. COHEN: Well, that was, you know, following "Borat" there was initially quite a - the Kazakhstani government hated the film initially, and there was a lot of - a lot of the embassies were making a lot of noise.

GROSS: Weren't they threatening to sue your brother?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. There was a little - there was a lot of stuff going on initially. But then some of them realized that, in fact, it kind of put them on the map. And I got rung up by the leader of the Kazakhstani Philharmonic, a guy called Marat Bisengaliev, who's a Russian-trained virtuoso violin player, as well. And he rang me and said, you know, we'd love to work with you. And you know, I said, you know, is this a joke? And they said, no. You know, we really like you did on "Borat," and we think it would be great to do something together.

So you know, I met up with this guy, and I just thought it would be - you know, I always like to do challenging stuff. So I wrote a symphony for an 85-piece orchestra, which was performed in London last year, and then we recorded it in Abbey Road, as well, later in that year. So it ended up being a really exciting project musically for me just to - to write for a really large orchestra and record it.

GROSS: What was the mood of that piece?

Mr. COHEN: Well, the mood was - what they wanted me to do was to take actual Kazakhstani influences. So I used a couple of, you know, their folk instruments in the symphony. And they've got a sort of strange guitar called a Dobro, and they also used a Jew's harp, funny enough is a - is able to do galloping horse noises with. And that's also characteristic folk instrument they have. So I tried to bring in some of those influences to the symphony and then combined that with just a big symphonic sound.

GROSS: So the music you wrote for the Kazakhstan Philharmonic has not been commercially released, but you do have a live recording of them performing it in London and you've brought some of that recording with you for us to hear. So let's give it a listen. This is an excerpt of Erran Barron Cohen's symphonic work, "Zeer(ph)," performed by the Kazakhstan Philharmonic.

(Soundbite of song "Zeer")

GROSS: Erran Baron Cohen, I'm so glad you brought an excerpt of that. That's an excerpt of Erran Baron Cohen's symphonic work, "Zeer," which was commissioned by the Kazakhstan Philharmonic after they saw the movie "Borat." And...

Mr. COHEN: Who would have thought?

GROSS: Who would have thought. And my guest is Erran Baron Cohen, and his new CD is a CD of Hanukkah music, original songs as well as traditional songs that he has reworked.

I think that your brother's working on a Bruno movie and Bruno is his - the gay fashion journalist, right? He's a fashion journalist, isn't he?

Mr. COHEN: Yes, Austrian. Yeah, that's right. I'm starting the work on the music for that pretty shortly, and it's coming out in May, I believe, of next year.

GROSS: So what's going to be the musical inspirations for what you do for that movie?

Mr. COHEN: Well, again, I'm just about to kind of immerse myself in the movie, in the ideas. And it's all coming - it's all - I'm yet to have the sort of discussions yet, but it's obviously going to have some gay influences. It's - you know, that's for sure. But also, I'm hoping it's going to have some orchestral romantic influence as well. And you know, if it's anything like the last one, it will probably be very eclectic musically and need all kinds of styles. But that's something I enjoy doing.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. COHEN: No problem.

GROSS: And Happy Holidays.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you very much. Happy Holidays to you.

GROSS: Erran Baron Cohen wrote the music for the movie, "Borat," and the TV series, "Da Ali G Show." His new CD of Hanukkah songs is called "Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah." Coming up, how Hollywood stuntmen survive their stunts. This is Fresh Air.

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