PBS – Soundtracks Music Without Borders – OH, KAZAKHSTAN!

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Publication / Network: PBS
Reporter: Arun Rath
Date: May 24, 2013

PBS – Sound Tracks – Music Without Borders
Reporter: Arun Rath
Segment: Oh Kazakhstan (Excerpt)

Marat Bisengaliev and the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra in Almaty, Kazakhstan perform “Zere: Part 1″ composed by Erran Baron Cohen.

When the mockumentary Borat opened in theaters in 2006, it delighted in offending all sorts of people, mainly Americans. But Kazakh officials were also not exactly thrilled about the portrayal of their country. The film was banned in Kazakhstan, and the government launched an advertising campaign to salvage the nation’s battered image. In all the controversy, virtuoso violinist Marat Bisengaliev, saw an opportunity. “Finally, there would be an interest for people to find out about the real Kazakhstan,” he tells reporter Arun Rath.

Marat went after the composer of the music for “Borat” — Erran Baron Cohen, the brother of the film’s star Sacha Baron Cohen. Erran had composed a mock Kazakh national anthem with the lyric: Kazakhstan’s prostitutes, cleanest in the region, except of course for Turkmenistan’s.

“They were going to use the real Kazakhstani national anthem and they couldn’t get permission,” explains Erran, who had just one night to compose a replacement. “The idea was to have this very big choir. But because it was the middle of the night, I couldn’t get a hold of anybody. So I just had to sing every part myself. So I multi-tracked about 40 times.”

When Marat called Erran out of the blue and asked him to write a symphony for the aggrieved country, Erran was incredulous. He thought it was a prank. “I mean, it was not their favorite movie.” But he eventually accepted Marat’s challenge to write a symphony including Kazakh folk music. It became known as “Zere.”

The symphony was performed to critical acclaim in England, but Marat had been apprehensive about performing Erran’s work in Kazakhstan. Feelings were still raw, and some called him a traitor. But he agreed to present the piece if Sound Tracks would film it. How would people react? Can music ever make amends?

The Sydney Morning Herald – Making music with Borat and Bruno

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Publication: The Sydney Morning Herald
Article: Making music with Borat and Bruno
Date: June 27, 2009

The other Baron Cohen boy … Sydney features regularly on Erran’s itinerary.
Photo: Jon Reid

Sacha Baron Cohen’s lesser-known brother is an acclaimed talent in his own right, writes Dan Goldberg.

His surname is Baron Cohen, his credits include Da Ali G Show, Borat and Bruno and he fell in love with an Australian woman. The inimitable Sacha Baron Cohen, of course.

Not quite. His older brother, Erran Baron Cohen, is a critically acclaimed musician and composer who wrote the score for the blockbuster mockumentary Borat and has just finished composing the music for Bruno, which has its premiere in Sydney on Monday.

Tall, lean and strikingly similar in looks to his younger sibling, Erran Baron Cohen, 41, has lived a “cave-like existence” for the past few months in Alexandria, where he has been writing the score for the flick that many critics say is more outrageous than the one featuring the bumbling Kazakh reporter.

The music for Borat, which won him an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers award, was heavily influenced by Gypsy music, a genre close to klezmer, one of Baron Cohen’s many musical roots.

But Bruno strikes another chord altogether, he says. His brother’s uber-gay, flamboyantly fashion-conscious alter ego from Austria is accompanied by music that is predominantly, well, gay.

“I immersed myself and bought a couple of electronic dance compilations – Germanic dance stuff – just to get some ideas,” he says. “There’s obviously also the electronic house style, as well as a 50-piece orchestra full of romantic stuff and a rock band.”

But the piece de resistance is the finale, which was recorded at Westlake Recording Studios in Los Angeles, where the late Michael Jackson recorded Thriller.While he will not disclose details, reports from the world premiere in London last week say the likes of Bono, Sting and Elton John feature in the song.

“We got some huge music stars to sing it,” Baron Cohen says. “It was definitely a memorable moment.”

Sydney also played a bit part. Some of the movie’s soundtrack was recorded with local session musicians at Studios 301. “We did a rock thing here which ended up in the movie. There’s a great guitarist called Mark Johns whom I knew from London and who moved back here; I got him in and some other great musicians.”

During the time he was holed up in Sydney, Baron Cohen made several trips to Los Angeles.

“I took everything I composed here to LA to sit with the director, Larry Charles, and Sacha and everybody else. It’s very, very intense; things are constantly changing, the scenes change, they cut things out.

“I was working day and night alone and at the end when you bring in musicians it’s a fantastic moment.”

The art of composing scores for films, he says, is knowing when to remain silent. Baron Cohen points to the infamous nude wrestling scene in Borat between his brother and his obese comrade Azamat.

“It was such a strong scene that any music would have probably detracted from the beauty of it. Not having any music there was as powerful.”

Like his “totally nuts” younger brother, Baron Cohen is also quirky, witty and sharp.

“The thing about Sacha’s movies, which I think makes them great, is that there’s this edge to them that actually exposes peoples’ prejudices.

“It’s very, very funny at the same time but it’s also somehow very heavy. It has those two sides to it, and that makes it really interesting.”

The two Baron Cohen brothers (they have an older brother) have been collaborating since, as kids in London, they would improvise after the Sabbath meal on Friday nights. “Me and Sacha used to play piano and make up songs for all the unsuspecting guests.”

When Da Ali G Show began in 2000 Sacha asked his brother to remix beats while bands such as Supergrass performed live. But for Borat he had to prove himself to Hollywood’s big guns.

“Before I was confirmed as the composer there were certain scenes they needed music for very quickly. One was my version of the Kazakhstani anthem; I did it in one night. They loved it and that got me the gig.

“Borat was the biggest thing I’ve ever worked on.”

It also spawned the most unlikely of commissions: composing music for the Turan Alem Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra. “I thought it was a joke,” Baron Cohen says, recalling the initial outrage of Kazakh officials to Borat. “But I thought I’ve got a chance to write music for an 80-piece orchestra. I’ve never done that before. ”

The piece, Zere, was performed at St James’s Church in 2007 and mastered at Abbey Road. Baron Cohen also recorded the first album of his world music project, Zohar, there in 2001. Rolling Stone called it “compellingly exotic”.

The first steps toward movies began when Baron Cohen took to the trumpet aged eight or nine. He also taught himself piano. “I performed at the Royal Albert Hall as a teenager playing trumpet and also with a school choir when I was 12.”

Ever since, he has been drawn to an eclectic range of influences – from classical to soul, jazz to Jewish cantorial music – which, he says, have helped him cross genres when writing film scores.

Although London is his official residence, Los Angeles and Sydney, where he was married a decade ago, feature regularly on his itinerary.

“I love it here,” he says. “I’d love to do a project here; there are great filmmakers. I just saw Samson & Delilah. Rabbit-Proof Fence is one of my favourites. I think the movies that come out of here are very unique.”

Bruno opens on July 8.

NPR – From Baron Cohen, Hanukkah Songs In A New Key

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Publication: NPR
Article: From Baron Cohen, Hanukkah Songs In A New Key
Interview with Terry Gross
Date: December 18, 2008

  • NPR - From Baron Cohen, Hanukkah Songs In A New Key -
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Composer Erran Baron Cohen’s latest CD Songs in the Key of Hanukkah offers a new take on traditional sounds. He talks about the album — and about collaborating with his brother Sacha Baron Cohen on the movie Borat.

Recorded in London, Berlin and Tel Aviv, the compilation of songs combines klezmer, reggae, electronica and hip hop as it reinterprets classics. The album even features New York rapper Y-Love rhyming in Yiddish.

Erran is a founding member of ZOHAR Sound System and DJ’s internationally and in London clubs.

Haaretz – Borat’s brother – a.k.a. Erran Baron Cohen – releases Hanukkah CD

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Publication: Haaretz
Article: Borat’s brother – a.k.a. Erran Baron Cohen – releases Hanukkah CD
By The Forward and Nathan Burstein
Date: November 26, 2008

Traditional and original songs featured in English, Ladino and Hebrew, with collaborations by Israeli singers.

Borat’s brother has recorded a Hanukkah album.

Erran Baron Cohen, brother of British comedian and “Borat” creator Sacha Baron Cohen, released his first holiday-themed collection, “Songs in the Key of Hanukkah,” on November 18, offering up original compositions as well as new, genre-fusing updates of classics, such as “Hanukkah oh Hanukkah” and “Ma’oz Tzur.”

Recorded in London, Tel Aviv and Berlin, the album features songs in English, Ladino and Hebrew, with musical collaborations by Israeli singers Idan Raichel and Avivit Caspi, among others. “Hanukkah has always been a kid-focused holiday,” Erran Baron Cohen said in a press release, “so the challenge was how to transform the music so that it was cool and interesting for adults and yet something that the whole family could enjoy.”

The resulting album, which merges such musical styles as klezmer, reggae, hip hop and tango, is in stark contrast with Erran Baron Cohen’s less family-friendly entertainment. The London-raised composer wrote the score for the 2006 mockumentary “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” in which his brother’s antisemitic Central Asian protagonist toured the United States in hopes of meeting Pamela Anderson. Despite the official protests that the film drew from the Kazakh government, Erran Baron Cohen was later asked to write a symphony for the Turan Alem Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra, which was performed in London in May 2007.

His next undertaking is another nonreligious affair: the score to his brother’s latest film, an as-yet untitled comedy about a gay Austrian fashion reporter named Bruno.

New York Magazine – ‘Borat’ Composer Erran Baron Cohen on His New Hanukkah Album, His Brother Sacha, and the Music of ‘Bruno’

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Publication: New York Magazine
Article: ‘Borat’ Composer Erran Baron Cohen on His New Hanukkah Album, His Brother Sacha, and the Music of ‘Bruno’
By Lauren Salazar
Date: November 18, 2008

The musical force behind Da Ali G Show, Borat, and the upcoming Bruno, Erran Baron Cohen (he’s Sacha’s brother) also somehow managed to find time to remake a whole collection of holiday classics just in time for the Festival of Light. Songs in the Key of Hanukkah, out today, features collaborations from world-renowned Jewish artists, including Brooklyn’s own Y-Love. Cohen spoke with Vulture recently about Yiddish rapping, the gayest CD in his collection, and what childhood games might have inspired Borat’s naked wrestling scene.

So, why a Hanukkah CD?
Well, the idea is sort of one of the more unusual projects I have been involved with. To take Hanukkah, which is a great festival that I always enjoyed as a kid singing all the songs. I remember we had this terrible record our parents played with children singing slightly off tune to a really old piano player. As the years went on, I realized they were all really bad tunes and all badly played. So the idea was to use story of Hanukkah and take some of the music of it and update it to make it really cool.

Who are some of these musicians on the record?
They’re not so well known in the U.S., but they were some of the interesting singers I was aware of here. Yasmin Levy is an incredible diva from the world-music scene. It was an amazing experience just to hear her sing. Idan Raichel is one of the big pop stars in Israel, sort of one of the more interesting people working there.

What’s the CD’s appeal for a recovering Catholic like myself?
I think it is aimed at Catholics actually. No, I think the hook is that it’s good music. It’s taking something that’s old and bringing it into the 21st century.

Do your kids have a favorite song?
“Oh Dreidel”; they love to dance around. And they love the rap track with Y-Love. He’s a New York–based Jewish rapper that converted to Judaism and raps in Yiddish.

Can you rap in Yiddish?
I don’t even think I could rap in English. But Y-Love can do it, and it sounds great. When we recorded that, we were in Berlin, so he’s this black, Jewish rapper in Berlin, and it was quite surreal but really powerful.

What was it like scoring for Da Ali G Show?
What was great about it was I got to remix some tracks. Like by Supergrass and Chrissy Hynde who were guests on the show; they didn’t quite know it was going to happen. They started to sing their songs and I was in the studio, and I remixed almost live and brought in ridiculous bass sounds. Eventually it turned into a completely different kind of extreme drum-and-bass hip-hop tune.

Do you and Sacha share a love of catching people off guard like that?
I think I certainly like pushing things to see how far you can take something, and Sacha has that as well. Certainly, we have a sense of humor. Well, he doesn’t have much of one. I am the funny one in the family.

How do you score something like a naked wrestling scene?
Well, the naked wrestling scene has no music. We decided that was such an extreme scene, sort of “the scene” of the film — certainly the most disgusting scene — that music would have detracted from the reality of the whole thing.

Was that scene based on any of your real-life experiences?
Do you mean did Sacha and I do any nude wrestling around the house? That’s interesting, I can’t remember being nude when wrestling with Sacha. I may have been wearing underpants at certain times, but they remained firmly on during our wrestling moments.

Can you tell me about the Bruno score? How different is it from the score for Borat?
It’s a lot gayer. That’s the key thing, I think. There’s a lot of gay influence in the music. I am investigating a lot of gay things at the moment. I just bought the CD called Gayfest 2008, and that’s my main influence.

What is on that CD?
It’s got a guy with a sort of muscle-y bare-chested look on the front. It’s got Jackie ‘O,’ “Before He Cheats.” It’s contemporary gay club, dance pop.

The Telegraph – At last, real Kazakh culture without Borat

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Publication: The Telegraph
Article: At last, real Kazakh culture without Borat
By Geoffrey Norris
Date: May 7, 2007

Geoffrey Norris reviews the Turan Alem Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra at St James’s, Piccadilly

Kazakhstan seems to have responded with good-humoured equanimity to the film Borat, in which Sacha Baron Cohen’s antics did not perhaps portray the country in the most favourable light.

But as if to redress the balance, this concert brought the Turan Alem Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra for a programme that showed a more cultured side of the Kazakh character.

Given the wave of publicity and controversy that Borat generated, it was astute, not to say broad minded, of the orchestra to include a work by Baron Cohen’s brother, Erran, who also wrote the film’s soundtrack.

Zere is a 20-minute piece of mood music, with the standard orchestra given an added tang by the use of such folk instruments as the domra and kobyz. To say this exotic colouring was the most interesting thing about the piece is perhaps to do it a slight injustice, but the three movements were fairly directionless, and from the point of view of style did not do anything that would have unnerved Vaughan Williams or Rimsky-Korsakov.

The concert’s extended first part was largely given over to a succession of miniatures for orchestra and solo violin, played by Marat Bisengaliev, who is also the Kazakhstan Philharmonic’s conductor. These ranged from Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro, through Bazzini’s fiendish La Ronde des Lutins (one of Maxim Vengerov’s favourite encores), and on to such things as Albeniz’s Asturias and the Méditation from Massenet’s Thaïs.

There was an element of the production line in the way all these were performed, one after the other, with slender characterisation and matter-of-fact virtuosity on Bisengaliev’s part, but the orchestra equipped itself well in Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and in a piece of quasi-Hindemith neo-classicism called Boston Winds for Strings by Almas Serkebayev.

The major test was Haydn’s Symphony No 104. Let’s not pretend the Berlin Philharmonic need yet look to its laurels, but there was some good, honest playing here and a potential among these young players that one felt could profitably be tapped by conductors prepared to work hard on interpretation and finesse.

Bisengaliev’s approach was not, frankly, the most searching, and the performance made no concessions to contemporary thinking on historically aware practice, but the ensemble was precise, the sound clear and the rhythms alert. Given time, the orchestra could, as Borat would have said, make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan.

The Telegraph – A symphony for Kazakhstan

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Publication: The Telegraph
Article: A symphony for Kazakhstan
By Adam Sweeting
Date: April 30, 2007

The brother of ‘Borat’ star Sacha Baron Cohen has become the unlikely toast of Kazakhstan’s classical music set. Adam Sweeting reports

After Kazakhstan’s outraged official response to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat movie – which included a summit meeting with George Bush in Washington and an aggrieved cri de coeur in the press from the country’s UK ambassador – the last person who expected an invitation to compose music for a Kazakhstani symphony orchestra was Cohen’s brother, Erran.

It’s not as if he can disclaim involvement in the satiric onslaught perpetrated by the racist, homophobic Kazakh TV reporter Borat, since it was Erran who wrote the score for Sacha’s uproariously offensive “movie-film”. Hence he was taken aback to pick up the phone and find Marat Bisengaliev, Kazakh violin virtuoso and conductor, on the line.

“I was very surprised to get a call from Marat, and initially I thought it might even be a joke,” admits Erran, sipping peppermint tea in the seethingly hip brasserie of the Charlotte Street Hotel. He resembles Sacha, but with the hyperactivity turned down a bit.

“But after I’d got over the initial shock of being rung up by someone from Kazakhstan, I thought it was a great accolade if they liked the music in the film so much that they asked me to write for a symphony orchestra.”

His new composition is entitled Zere, in recognition of sponsorship from Kazakhstan’s Zere Corporation, and will be given its world première at St James’s Church in Piccadilly, London, on Frida y (or at least its first three completed movements will). Bisengaliev will play violin and conduct the improbable-sounding Turan Alem Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra.

There are plans for additional performances in Kazakhstan and in Mumbai with the Symphony Orchestra of India, of which Bisengaliev is music director, while Sony BMG will release the complete version on CD. Even the composer isn’t sure what it will sound like played live by a full-scale orchestra, though he suggests listeners may detect his fondness for the likes of Steve Reich, John Adams and Górecki.

“I’ve tried to bring in some Kazakh influences through the use of folk elements and instruments like the dombra, which is a Kazakhstani two-string guitar, and the kobuz, which is like a Jew’s harp,” he says. “Marat will play some solos, but it’s not exactly a concerto. The brief was so open that I could do what I wanted.”

Meanwhile Erran has been shuttling to Los Angeles in pursuit of more film work, and a fortnight ago won an award for his Borat soundtrack. Yet perversely, it doesn’t contain a single note of authentic Kazakh music.

“The soundtrack covered a wide spectrum, but it was based on gipsy Romanian music,” confesses its composer.

“There was orchestral horror-movie music, electronic stuff and gay house music, but there weren’t any Kazakhstani references at all. Kazakhstan in the film was just a tool: it was used almost as a random country that nobody knew much about.”

The Zere project is further evidence of the way official condemnation merely boosts Borat’s mystique. The Kazakhstan government banned the film and suppressed a satirical Borat website, but Kazakhstanis have been buying DVD copies by the armful.

Now, Borat-related music may help to bridge the culture gap between Western Europe and a previously obscure country – albeit the world’s ninth largest – in Central Asia.

“I think Sacha was very brave to make the film, and it was dangerous to make,” says Erran.

“But I think it’s comedy’s role to play with fire, because it can push boundaries and ask questions you couldn’t raise any other way.”

In 16 years as a professional musician, Erran has learned the value of versatility. A trained trumpeter as well as composer, he has worked as a session musician, composed music for commercials, scored TV programmes from nature documentaries to his brother’s Ali G series, earned extra cash from teaching and formed his own band, Zöhar. The latter recently had their second album, Do You Have Any Faith?, released in the USA on Miles Copeland’s CIA label.

“I love to fuse things together which are not obviously meant to be linked,” he says.

“With Zöhar, I was interested in the link between Jewish and Arabic music and fusing them with beats, drum and bass and ambient textures. I’m half Israeli, and I always heard a lot of Arabic music in Israel. Obviously there’s a lot of hate between the communities, but musically they’re very similar.”

Success seems to be a genetic trait in the Baron Cohens. Erran’s cousin Simon is a Cambridge psychology professor and expert on autism, another cousin, Ash, is directing a film in Hollywood, and his older brother Amnon designs computer chips.

“Yeah, it’s an interesting family,” he agrees. “We all went into slightly different areas and we try not to conflict. That seems to be the way it’s worked out.”

Zere will be performed at St James’s Church, London W1 on Friday.