‘Songs in Key of Chanukah’? Oh, Is Nice!


Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, they made it out of … rock?

Roll with it, muses Erran Baron Cohen, keying in on some new sound advice for those who want mischievous music with their matzah balls. It's all in his latest, the lyrical "Songs in the Key of Hanukkah."

"Ocho Kandalikas," with Yasmin Levy adding her voice to the mix? Rapper Y-Love giving lip service to the holiday?

What have they done with my song, Kazakhstan?

Indeed, this Baron is off-the-wall, on-point royalty: He scored his brother Sacha's send-up, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," as well as "Da Ali G Show," and both were da bombs bursting in air.

But music is no air kiss of a hobby for Erran; his Zohar band is kissin' cousin to Kabbalah, fusing without fuss Arab and Hebrew heritages that have struck accord with many a fan.

He's tzedakah with no Sedaka: Don't expect him to lay down "Sixteen Candles," but mention eight, and his voice lights up. "I've been involved with Jewish music with Zohar for so many years and thought this CD would be key for a lot of those who are tired of 'Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel' all their life."

He's spun it his way, in sync with the hip — and maybe a shock for those not attuned to the here and now.

Now he offers an explanation why: "Traditional music tends to be terribly produced. But it's a challenge to make it really interesting."

He drew the industry's interest early on, adding a new line to New Line Records' needs.

"I hooked up with Jason Linn," and the connection keyed in on Chanukah since Linn, president of the New Line Records, was out shopping for a Chanukah gift and was overwhelmed by the white noise of "White Christmas" and other holiday tunes.

When yuletide is not your own, he realized, someone should make some noise about it. "So I went for it," relates Cohen.

Untraditional musings on music coming from a member of a traditional British Jewish family. "I went to Israel a lot, was in Habonim," he says of his childhood.

Cantorial Impact
But one thing he couldn't put behind of his boyish ways was memory of moving Shabbats. "There was this great cantor at our temple — an old guy with a beautiful voice that moved me so much," recalls Cohen.

He could have gone anywhere, but he chose temple. "Even as a kid, I loved going to temple. Which is a big reason I started the Zohar project. Its spiritual element is linked to my memories of my cantor."

He had Miles to go before he was able to succeed. "Miles Davis and that trumpet," he sighs, of another key influence, "one of the greatest musical minds ever."

Would the traditionalist mind his new take on Chanukah? "I've played it for all my friends," he says, of his own "our crowd" of crowing fans.

More importantly, perhaps, "my own three kids — they're 8, 6 and 3 — really love it."

Can he claim brotherly love as well?

"Chenquieh" to Chanukah! In fact, "Sacha is on my first Zohar album."

He's not putting us on. Indeed, music was part of the mix at the Cohen clan's get-togethers over the years. "We always played music together, and on Shabbat, Sacha and I would be part of the performances. Indeed, he is very musical."

Is nice. No, more than that. "We've always been close," he says of sibling Sacha and himself.

Close encounters of a concerted kind? "I feel honored and lucky Sacha likes the stuff I write," says his bro. "He particularly likes my version of 'Dreidel.' "

But couldn't fashionista Bruno be brutal? If he altered his ego, kids the music man, but Sacha has always been supportive. Yet, who's kidding whom, says the kid brother: "I'm actually the funniest in the family." But it's all sibling revelry, not rivalry. "I'm proud Sacha's done so well."

Well, no one's going to throw this Jew down a well. After all, giving the kazoo salute to Kazakhs didn't prevent them from taking a liking to the composer, and Erran ran with their request. "They commissioned me to write a symphony for the Kazakhstan Philharmonic."

"Zere" seared the hearts of critics, gaining a warm bravo for Baron Cohen when it premiered last year in London.

Can he make a case for Kazakhstan in his future? Touring with Zohar with "Zere"?

No, he kids, "Kazakhstan probably won't be my first port of call."

But this calling that is his music is being heard more and more worldwide. Hear this, Philadelphia: The music of this night Erran just may have you earmarked, as Erran gives the city and its key players a Sacha-style shout-out:. "Philadelphia Orchestra, come invite us!"  


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