Finally, an album of Hanukka songs to rival those Christmas carols.
By LEO DAVIDSON
Many have remarked in the past about the dearth of decent Hanukka songs, in contrast to the abundance of Christmas songs. This year, Erran Baron Cohen, in conjunction with New Line Records, has released a CD that he hopes will rectify this situation, entitled Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah.
"I remember as a child listening to some recording of Israeli children singing; it was slightly difficult to listen to," explains Baron Cohen. "I thought it would be an interesting challenge to try to make a record that was worth listening to, especially for adults."
The project took off at a party for the release of the Borat film (for which Baron Cohen had written the score) when Baron Cohen met the president of New Line Records, Jason Linn, who had recently sought in vain for a Hanukka record that was not kitsch in nature.
The disc features both original material, written specifically for this release by artists such as Israeli star Idan Raichel, and reworkings of old favorites. "Total transformations" is how Baron Cohen, who acted as cowriter, producer, instrumentalist and backing singer, labels them.
Regarding the reworkings, he says that he "loves to bring new and old together, and take the tradition somewhere else," but he still found it a "challenge."
He gives the example of "Dreidel," and even offers a short, almost sarcastic rendition. "You know, 'Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay?' I thought it was one of the most depressing, awful pieces of music I'd ever heard. It seemed to have absolutely no scope."
With Jules Brookes's assistance, however, he feels that he has succeeded in "making it into something great."
Another testament to Baron Cohen's ability to adapt the traditional songs is the fact that "Maoz Tzur" (which he dubs "the anthem of Hanukka") and "Rock of Ages," which have a common melody, emerge as "completely different songs."
He was keen to include the latter, whose lyrics, written by Marcus Jastrow in the 19th Century, are a loose translation of the Hebrew hymn Maoz Tzur. This is because he felt that "its words are very powerful. They examine the heavier issues, such as the oppression and tyranny that feature in the story of Hanukka."
Meanwhile, it was very important to him to represent more than just the Western, Ashkenazi tradition. So he researched other communities' traditions in order to represent their music on the CD, but not always with success. "I was desperately trying to find Moroccan Hanukka music, until I discovered that there was none, as they had left Israel before the story actually happened."
There are, however, two songs hailing from the Ladino tradition ("Ocho Kandelikas" and "A La Luz De La Vela"), performed by Yasmin Levy, who, in Baron Cohen's opinion, possesses "one of the great voices around: we were very lucky to work with her."
INTERMINGLED WITH these recognizable songs are the originals, which comprise songs in both English and Hebrew. Some of these are based on the traditional tunes, such as "Spin It Up," which is based on "Sevivon," and "Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah," which combines a klezmer treatment of the familiar melody with a Yiddish rap from American artist Y-Love.
"This really is a new concept in Jewish music. We set out to create a great album which we can all enjoy, instead of feeling slightly embarrassed."
Originally intended for a grown-up audience, Baron Cohen reports that it gained popularity among younger listeners: notably his three children, who are "loving it. We realized that it is also a family album, for a lovely family festival."
The wide variety of styles and artists represented on the record resulted in a recording process that was somewhat out of the ordinary. Baron Cohen met with Brooklyn-based Y-Love in Berlin for convenience's sake, and in August flew out to Israel to record "Relics Of Love & Light" with Idan Raichel and Avivit Caspi.
He speaks positively of his time recording in Tel Aviv, and despite a hectic schedule "still managed to have a good time; there's some great food over there."
He looks forward to the next time he has a chance to work in Israel.
The eclecticism that permeates the compilation is reflected in Baron Cohen's own musical background. After attaining a music degree in London, he joined a klezmer band, and more recently has been touring with his band Zemer, which "fuses Jewish, Arabic and drum and bass influences."
He was recently involved in writing the score for the movie, Borat, in which his brother Sacha Baron Cohen starred and which brought him some awards and a heightened profile. In addition, he is "imminently" to begin work on his brother's next movie, to be based on the fictional character Bruno. "I enjoy lots of different things," shrugs Erran.
Meanwhile, Sacha has been quoted as saying, "Even if he wasn't related to me, this album is so damn good that I'd want to make him my brother."
The brothers seem to be in agreement on this point: "[This record] is a great present," declares Erran. "Every family should have at least one copy, if not more."
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