Riffing by the Dead Sea

At this year’s Tamar Festival, musical mainstays like Aviv Gefen, Ivri Lider and Shlomo Artzi are challenged by cross-cultural sensation Riff Cohen.

RIFF COHEN (photo credit: HILA VUGMAN)
(photo credit: HILA VUGMAN)
Riff Cohen is one of those artists who simply can’t stop moving. That is plain to see and hear from her debut album, A Paris, which came out last year. The CD is a tantalizing mix of rock, Arabic and French music, with some Hebrew liturgy and a liberal seasoning of African tribal sounds thrown in for good measure.
All of that, and then some, will be on offer at Cohen’s concert at this year’s Tamar Festival, which will take place in its regular environs of the Dead Sea, October 11-15. Cohen will perform at Kibbutz Ein Gedi on October 12 (6:30 p.m.), and there is a plethora of other big names right across the festival program, with intriguing synergies between Bery Sacharoff and Shlomi Shabat, Ivri Lider, Shlomi Shaban and Aviv Gefen, and Muki, Mosh Ben-Ari and Balkan Beat Box, while big guns Shlomo Artzi, Ariel Zilber, Shlomo Gronich and Mati Caspi are also in the Tamar mix.
So, who or what is Riff Cohen? The 30-year-old singer was born in north Tel Aviv to a family with French-Moroccan and Algerian roots. Cohen clearly has a multitude of cultural strands running through her so its stands to reason that she would mine her musical heritages when she finally got around to putting out her debut recording.
Then again, Cohen notes that her familial backdrop is so multilayered it is hard to pinpoint specific channels of inspiration.
“Today it is difficult to talk of something like individual, genetic artistic influences because there are so many conflicting things that run through me,” she says. “I could tell you that I grew up in Ramat Aviv, and that I come from a traditional home and I keep Shabbat, and that half of my family is in France and half in Jaffa. Everything is all mixed up and entangled.”
The influence plot thickens even further in the age of the Internet, when every artist is influenced by so many sounds, regardless of their own personal cultural roots.
“You know we are all exposed to Youtube, where you see and hear literally everything in the world,” says Cohen, although noting that the things that come to her most naturally are the ones that have the most impact on her, both as a person and as an artist.
“There are some things which I understand and feel genetically, including in music. There are a lot of things I never heard before – I have never been to North Africa – but they are already a part of me.
Someone, for example, may be born with a gift for mathematics, and you can see that in the eye.
“For example, I have an Ashkenazi friend who can’t do vocal ululation, while I can do that naturally, and we didn’t really have a different upbringing. Or there are all these crazy complex rhythms I have gotten into recently, like stuff from the Berbers [an ethnic group that populates the breadth of North Africa, from the Atlantic coast as far as Egypt], which I am drawn to and fascinated by, and I feel the rhythms run right through me. That must come from somewhere.
There are pictures of traditional Berber dress and it is just like how my grandparents and their antecedents used to dress in Morocco, so maybe there is a connection there.”
While Cohen is a product of her generation, with easy access to all manner of sounds, grooves and colors, she says she finds herself increasingly dipping into the past and appreciating some of the pearls of wisdom and timeworn tips of her grandparents’ generation.
“We are a generation where everything is possible, and everything is accessible, so it is difficult to pinpoint specific influences,” she says. “On the one hand, my grandmother and I have absolutely nothing in common. The enormous cultural cutoff which took place in Israel – my grandmother is illiterate – in a way, completely separates my generation from the generation of my grandparents. And, by all rights, I should be completely secular. That was the education I got at school. But when I look at my grandparents’ generation and, for example, the traditional cures they have and that sort of thing, and then I go to Paris and I see everyone taking antidepressants, and couples [that] don’t manage to stick together, I realize that the modern world didn’t quite manage to solve all the problems around.”
Cohen started out on her musical road a long time ago, and has taken it pretty seriously throughout – and there have been plenty of twists and turns in her artistic path, and intriguing byways. She started out on classical piano at the tender age of four. True to her go-get-’em ethos, in high school she started initiating all sorts of musical projects and began to try her hand and musical arranging. Later she also took voice training lessons and studied performance, and took a degree in musicology at Tel Aviv University.
Betwixt and between she also got into the alternative music scene in Tel Aviv, doing gigs at the Hagada Hasmalit venue on Achad Ha’am Street, and wrote scores for theatrical productions. So when she finally got down to putting together A Paris she brought plenty to the writing and recording fray.
“It took me a full five years to get the album out,” Cohen declares. “I went into everything very thoroughly, but I didn’t want to scare anyone with ‘weird’ stuff. I wanted to make the first CD something everyone could enjoy.”
Apparently she succeeded, because the title song became a huge hit both in Israel and France, and its video clip has garnered almost two million views on Youtube. Cohen was so much the “it girl” that she was asked to open up for Red Hot Chili Peppers when they performed at Park Hayarkon in Tel Aviv in 2012.
Her sophomore release is already at an advanced stage of production, and that should also keep the public grooving. The third album has also started gestating, and Cohen says it will probably be a more intimate and harmonious offering.
“I have started working with another singer, which is great as it allows me to explore harmonies. That’s something I studied at university and I really want to do something with that.”
For tickets and more information: (02) 623-7000 or *6226, and www.tamarfestival.com.