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Erran Baron Cohen interview

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2007-07-20

Erran Baron Cohen

Erran Baron Cohen

Musician Erran Baron Cohen – the brother of Borat and Ali G creator Sacha – made a name for himself a few years ago with the band Zohar, who fuse cantorial chants and other ethnic music with dance beats. Caroline Westbrook talks to him about his involvement in the Sacred exhibition at London's British Library, as well as his famous sibling and his work with the Kazakhstan orchestra.

How did you get involved in the Sacred exhibition?
Well Zohar my band fuses Jewish and Arabic dance music and taking it to the clubs, so I'm not quite sure exactly how it came through but it's quite nice to be involved in it, it's quite a good setting for us.

What do you think of it?
Well it brings Jewish and Arab culture together, I know they've been doing a whole programme and I'm not sure what other stuff they've been doing, but it's nice obviously and important to have this kind of thing. Part of my music highlights the similarity between Jewish and Arabic music, and culturally we're cousins. Unfortunately there's a lot of antagonism and hate and that's a great pity, so it's nice to have an evening where you have these things coming together in a positive way. The Jewish community in this country is quite narrow minded and probably totally ignorant to be honest of how many similarities there are between the people, so anything that will bring the two together is a positive thing in the weird times we're living in.

How did the band come about in the first place and what are you guys up to?
Well immediately before this we're touring the US,playing New York, Chicago, San Francisco and LA. The Sacred thing is a DJ set with percussion but the whole band is going out to America where the album isout. The band came about from me a long long time ago messing about with Jewish cantorial stuff with beats. On the last album we used a lot of samples of very old records of dead people singing very nicely and bringing it into the future in some ways, but this new album is much less sample based, we've worked with some amazing singers.

Are you looking forward to Kazakhstan orchestra?
Well funnily enough I was conducting them in Abbey Road last week which was an amazing experience. But I've written a symphonic work for them and it was performed in May at St James' in Piccadilly. It was an amazing evening and it will be released by Sony BMG probably next year – it was a bizarre project but an amazing one.

What's your favourite Jewish music?
Well I think most of it is terrible! With the cantorial stuff on the album, what interested me more than the music is what the cantorial singers were actually doing in between the melodies, and that's what I was interested in more than the actual melody. Also I've taken klezmer music and brought it right to the clubs on this new album. I don't really listen to Jewish music, I'm influenced by lots of different sounds.

You worked on the music for Borat – how long did that take to create?
Most of it was done in about a two to three month period.

Any more plans to work on any of your brother's other projects?
Well I'm certainly hoping to do more film scores, which may include some of his projects but obviously for me having done that film now and actually winning some awards for it which was quite nice. It was a big film and I think people liked the music, so I've been backwards and forwards to LA, so film scoring is definitely an area I'm interested in. I've got an agent now in LA so I have a couple of potential things in mind but nothing to talk about yet.

Has Sacha been to see the band perform?
Yes, many times. In fact he features on one of my earliest albums, speaking in Spanish actually. My first album was called Elokeinu and he is featured on it.

What aspects of Judaism do you enjoy?
I like the traditional elements, the family, Israel, more than the religious side. I've got kids now so I have to start going to synagogue more but I don't go that often. When I do go I like to hear good singing. When I was a kid and I did go to shul every now and then I loved singing and hearing the tunes – that made it a much more enjoyable experience. Some congregations are better at singing than others, let's say that. I have actually been in the shul choir in my time, when I was much younger. The average age was about 70 or 80 and I was in my early twenties. But I'm not a huge fan of the shul choir, let's be honest.

Erran Baron Cohen will be part of a headlining evening with Shazia Mirza featuring comedy, music and words at the British Library on July 26. The event is free but tickets need to be reserved. For more information, visit: