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.