There’s more than one Baron Cohen behind the success of Bruno and Borat. The musical brother, Erran, discusses Hassidic raps and Kazakhstani anthems with John Patterson
I meet Erran Baron Cohen, older brother of Sacha and composer of the soundtracks to his movies, in Hollywood the morning after the Los Angeles premiere of Bruno at the Chinese Theatre. Bruno himself had turned up there, in a buttock-emphasising lederhosen and a tunic coated with medals, sitting astride the gun barrel of a cheesy glitterball tank and escorted by a platoon of ill-clad bimbettes.
And all this against the backdrop of Michael Jackson’s death, hours earlier and only miles away. That had forced the last-minute excision of a scene in the movie featuring Jackson’s (apparently rather gullible) sister La Toya. To make matters worse, the scaffolding for the Bruno premiere had obscured Jackson’s star on the tacky Hollywood Walk of Fame, where fans had hoped to gather and mourn. Fiesta meets Deathwatch: it’s almost as if Bruno had scripted it.
None of the clamour, chaos and absurdity that swirls around Sacha Baron Cohen troubles Erran, although when we meet at Farmers Market for lunch he is still a little shocked by Jackson’s death. “The price of fame and everything else from a young age, I suppose.”
There was, he says, a great reaction in the Chinese Theatre the previous night: “Everyone laughing and being really, really shocked at the same time, just perfect. There was amazing pressure to follow up Borat, and it was obviously much, much harder to do it second time around. And the result is, I think, a better movie than Borat. Well, it’s obviously a gayer movie. You’re on the edge a lot watching it, there are a lot of scary moments and it does show up all these prejudices that people have. It’s an extreme movie, and that’s good.”
Erran, who has been his brother’s soundtrack composer on both Borat and Bruno, was originally a trumpeter, studied music at Guildhall and Goldsmiths in London, and leads the evolving musical project Zohar (named for one of the books explicating the Kabbalah and dedicated to cross-pollinating different kinds of mainly Middle-Eastern music). Last year he put out an album of hip-hop-infused Hanukah songs – “because the music for Hanukah, which is a nice festival for the kids, is just terrible, these terrible nursery rhymes”. It sold nicely and got him on Conan O’Brien’s late-night chat show in the US, dressed in full Hassidic regalia alongside similarly attired black New York rapper and Jewish-convert Y-Love, who sings in Hebrew, Yiddish and Aramaic. Suffice to say, the musical Baron Cohen likes to mix it up as much as his comedic sibling.
Bruno called for some rather different musical vibes. “I did this gay house-electro-Austrian-Germanic sort of sound, on which I’m also saying occasional German words as part of the vocals, such as ‘Ach Ja!’ and ‘Erotisches!’ and various ridiculous things. There’s that side, and there’s the more orchestral, Romantic, emotional stuff which we recorded with a 50-piece orchestra here in LA. Then there’s a rock part I did with a band here, and a song I wrote for the end credits. I was having to write music in a lot of different styles, very quickly and very well. You have a sort of cave-like existence, working day and night. The good thing is, at the end you get to work with an orchestra and brilliant musicians in these great studios, and that’s where it all finally becomes a lot less cave-like.”
Things were a little different on Borat. There, Erran had to summon up the musical ethos of an imaginary flyblown, post-Soviet backwater-hellhole afflicted by ignorance, incest, bad plumbing and antisemitism. They called it Kazakhstan. “On Borat I did all this Gypsy-like, actually Romanian Gypsy-like stuff, along with some tacky Romanian pop music and, most famously, this anthem at the end. They called me in London from LA and said they needed a “Kazakhstani anthem”. There was no real anthem, or at least they weren’t sure what it was. So they wanted a new, strong version with the words they had written [to wit: “Kazakhstan! Kazakhstan! Greatest country in the world!”]. And of course they wanted it by tomorrow. The idea was to make it sound like the great massed voices of the Red Army Choir, or something. But obviously I couldn’t get hold of them in the middle of the night – the great massed voices of the Red Army Choir, I mean – so I had to sing it myself. I multi-tracked my voice 40 times and it kind of worked – they all loved it when they heard it. It’s an anthemic thrill ride!”
You would think that, after Borat’s many and varied cultural affronts to the good people and the good name of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Erran Baron Cohen might have joined his brother on its 10-most-wanted list. But no. Instead, the conductor of the Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra, Marat Bisengaliev, called him up to commission, of all things, a “Kazakhstan symphony”. Did any alarm bells start ringing at that moment?
“Yeah, obviously the initial reaction to Borat from Kazakhstan was not as positive as it might have been,” Erran says. “The embassies here and in London were very vitriolic in their dislike of it. But the odd thing about Borat was that there wasn’t any Kazakhstani music in it. And then I got this call from Marat [for a nanosecond I mishear him saying ‘Borat’], who runs this orchestra, and I obviously thought it was a joke, initially. It wasn’t, as it turned out.
“Musically, this time I did use the Kazakhstani influence; it was scored for large orchestra and solo violin, plus two Kazakhstani instruments: the jew’s harp, for which they have a different name, and a Kazakhstani kind of guitar. And it’s just been performed for the first time in Kazakhstan, which I couldn’t make, unfortunately.” (Again, I ponder the Kazakhstan 10-most-wanted list.)
Apart from acting as Sacha’s de facto musical director, Erran has been collaborating musically with his brother (who is four years younger) since they were kids. “Even growing up together we used to do little comedy songs, improvised for singing on Friday nights to unsuspecting guests at my parents’ home. And when we were older, we did Hassidic raps, one called Schwitz which is like, ‘sweat’. You’ve got the Hassidic black clothes, the suit, the hat, the typical Hassidic uniform, but it’s very hot and they wear it even in LA on a really hot day – and be ‘schwitzing’. So that was something we did off the top of our heads. And then later we ended up performing it in some comedy clubs around London, all dressed up as Hassidics. Then some BBC late-night comedy show actually recorded it, but then banned it immediately because we’d insulted three religions within three minutes. And after that Sacha’s comedy career really started.”
Does he ever wonder if that comedy career will end horribly in the middle of one of his stunts? “Yes, and I think it would be good if he did some less dangerous movies in the future. There are some scenes in this movie where the danger factor is just completely nuts. I know I wouldn’t do those kind of things. I’m really happy to be just doing the music.”
Bruno is released nationwide today (10 July)