Riff Cohen 370.
(photo credit: Yanai Yechiel)
If there’s anyone who epitomizes the vibrant musical multiculturalism emanating from Tel Aviv, it’s Riff Cohen. But rather than providing a dry textbook course in ethnomusicology, the 28- year-old cute-as a-pixie singer exudes electricity when she performs her boundlessly energetic blend of North African rhythms, urban hip hop and French pop, all fueled by reckless Israeli abandon.
Propelled by an infectious beat, Cohen’s childlike sweetness and a good dose of her wild hair hula hoop motions and gyrating belly dancing moves, her first single, “A Paris,” became an indie club hit in Tel Aviv and Paris. The smile-inducing, body-swaying clip garnered more than 300,000 views since its debut a year ago. And it’s all been without the benefit of an official release or being signed to a record company.
The video, featuring a buoyant Cohen dancing along the streets of Paris and playfully singing with bystanders, hints at a star in the making in the Shakira mold, but Cohen is taking her time about achieving her goals of spreading her music around the globe.
If she does hit the big time, it won’t be because of hype or business connections but due to authentic musical connections filtering down from her paternal grandmother, who immigrated to Palestine from Tunis when she was 14, and from her mother who made aliya from Algeria.
“I’m 100% North African,” Cohen laughed during a phone conversation this week. “My grandmother was from the island of Djerba, and just before the Nazis invaded in 1942 her mother arranged for her to marry my grandfather and move to Palestine. The logo I use for my music is her passport photo when she was 14, just before she left.”
Growing up in a bilingual (Hebrew and French) household in Tel Aviv, Cohen was an urban girl, hooked on the music of trip hop artists like Massive Attack and Tricky, and the dreamy experimentalism of Bjork and Radiohead.
But she also learned about her North African heritage and its music from her grandmother and mother. “It was only when I would sit with her and listen to her great stories about her youth was I able to understand my roots,” she said. “And I’ve tried to pass that on through my music.”
Cohen began playing the piano as a child and studied classical piano and voice development at a performing arts high school before attending Tel Aviv University, where she studied musicology and delved into the Jewish roots of North African music. She also began to write songs, many of them unpublished poems by her mother that she set to music. In 2007, she was accepted to a prestigious three-year program in Paris that nurtures young artists and enables them to expend all their energies on creating their art.
“They gave me a beautiful apartment with a piano in it, and I just worked there every day,” said Cohen. “I was trying to write songs for an album, and ‘A Paris’ came out of there. But I also wrote songs in a different style from that kind of ethnic hip hop – very piano-heavy singersongwriter stuff like Adele, even though at that time nobody knew it was like Adele.”
EMI heard “A Paris,” and there were murmurings of a record contract. But according to Cohen, a number of timing factors stymied the deal. However, “A Paris” took on a life of its own.
“It was surprising, but in a way I wasn’t surprised,” said C ohen of the song’s popularity in cyber circles. “It’s a really international song. Everyone can understand it, sing along and laugh a bit. I think it does a good job at making people happy. It’s fresh and it’s different, and that’s why it became popular.”
Cohen doesn’t see the near record deal as a botched opportunity but as a welcome chance to devote extra time to her music and make the kind of album that won’t have any outside interference. Upon her return from her three years in France, she took up residence in Jerusalem and has been working on the album at her own pace.
“I’m able to decide when to proceed and take my time if I want to,” she said.
There is progress, though, with Cohen recently releasing her second single, “J’aime,” which is proving to be as vivacious as “A Paris.” Unlike that song, the video clip for “J’aime” was shot in Jaffa, and the world music Tunisian vibe in her music is clearly present.
To celebrate the single’s release, Cohen will be performing with a full band on March 20 at Zappa Tel Aviv. It might be one of the last concerts she gives before the album containing “A Paris” and J’aime” is released, and who knows which performance stages that will lead the singer to. Not that Riff Cohen needs something as conventional as an album to announce her arrival.
“I have some friends in Paris who’ve heard “A Paris” on the radio, and others have heard it in restaurants and clubs. People even know my name. It’s really funny because I don’t even have a record contract – it’s so indie!” Riff Cohen will perform at Zappa Tel Aviv on March 20.
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