October 17, 2019

The musical Baron Cohen brother comes into his own

Erran Baron Cohen says that ever since he and his younger brother, Sacha — of Borat fame — were boys in London, he was the musician and Sacha was the comedian.

“We used to develop and perform material after Shabbat dinner in our parents’ house,” recalls the musician, a trumpeter, producer and composer who will appear with his klezmer-Middle Eastern trance band, Zohar, at the Skirball Cultural Center on July 19.

Erran sang and played the piano while Sacha mugged and acted out outrageous skits, even if their parents and older brother weren’t listening.

“That didn’t matter to us, actually,” Baron Cohen says, with a laugh.

“We used to occasionally come up with some very clever ideas, one of which was this comedy song called schvitzen, the Yiddish word for ‘sweating,'” he adds. “It was about a Chasid wearing his very warm clothes in a schvitz [steam bath], which we thought was hilarious.”

The song evolved into a skit as the brothers performed together in comedy clubs early in their respective careers — and after Sacha enlisted Erran to write music for what would become his hit TV show, “Ali G.” In the TV version, the fictional Chasid becomes so overheated that he ends up converting to Christianity, among other faux-religious antics.

“The BBC filmed it, but then banned it because they said we insulted three religions in three minutes,” Baron Cohen, 39, says from his London home. “We were quite proud of that.” Baron Cohen, who has a music degree from London University, went on to write music for a number of other TV programs and to compose the score for Sacha’s mockumentary, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” about a racist, anti-Semitic Kazakh journalist who treks across the United States.

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers granted Baron Cohen an award for his score, which drew on (and parodied) Soviet-style marches, Gypsy tunes and orchestral horror music (for the scene in which the anti-Semitic Borat discovers his bed-and-breakfast hosts are Jews). The Borat star presented the prize to his brother at the awards ceremony last spring.

Baron Cohen’s band, Zohar, is a far more serious endeavor — “perhaps a bit too serious,” he quips. It began around 1997, when a friend asked him to write music for a play exploring how to bring issues of Jewish identity into the modern world.

Previously, Baron Cohen had played in bands that focused on world music and rhythm and blues, but he found himself eager to tap into his Jewish roots. While he was not (and still is not) observant, he says, he had enjoyed the cantorial music he heard in his traditional, childhood synagogue. He also loved the Israeli and Arabic melodies he heard during frequent trips to Haifa to visit his grandmother, a German Jew who had fled Nazi-occupied Frankfurt for Israel.

For the play’s incidental music, Baron Cohen combined “old vinyl recordings of synagogue cantors, Arabic drum sounds and electronic beats.”

He created Zohar to expand on the concept of “mixing very old samples and putting them into a modern context” — and eventually added Arab Muezzins and Byzantine chants to the mix.

“People were affected by the power of the [spiritual] voices, even though they did not know what they were,” Baron Cohen says.

The Evening Standard lauded Baron Cohen as a “pioneer of a new music hybrid” who was “making waves” on the London club scene; Rolling Stone praised his “emotive ethnic electronica.”

In 2001, Zohar released its debut album, “one.three.seven,” which, he says, “refers to the sequence and repetition of the prayers during the last moments of the Yom Kippur service.” Zohar’s new album, “Do You Have Faith,” uses live singers of various faiths to “explore the power of the voice and make a statement about the need for cultural harmony.”

“Borat” initially caused cultural discord — not harmony — after the mockumentary’s release, when outraged Kazakhstan officials called a summit meeting with President Bush, among other protests. At the time, Erran noted that the score did not include a single note of Kazakhstan music because the film was not about the real Kazakhstan.

Given the controversy, he was startled to receive a cordial e-mail from Marat Bisengaliev, a prominent Kazakh violinist and conductor, in early 2007. Bisengaliev wanted to commission Baron Cohen to compose a 20-minute piece for symphony orchestra, to be performed by the Turan Alem Kazakhstan Philharmonic at St. James Church in London. “At first I thought it was a joke, and I was a bit suspicious,” Erran says. But when the offer proved authentic, Baron Cohen studied Kazakh folk music — which is based on a five-note scale, like Chinese music — to write his piece, which premiered to good notices in May.

Of course, newspapers referred to Baron Cohen as “the brother of Borat” — “which is to be expected, isn’t it?” the composer says. “Fortunately, Sacha and I tried to go in different directions from childhood, so we did not have to directly compete with each other.”

For information about the Zohar concert, call (310) 440-4500.

Zohar music video