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.