Erran Baron Cohen has said he first got the idea for Zohar when he heard Coldcut’s remix of Eric B and Rakim’s “Paid In Full”—with its memorable sample of Israeli singer Ofra Haza—blaring in a London club back in the early ‘90s. Building on the Arabic beatscapes that have become a signature of such groups as Thievery Corporation, Cohen and co-producer Andrew Kremer sift Middle Eastern influences through a filter of acid jazz, electronica and dub, while also embracing music from the Jewish tradition. Zohar’s 2001 debut one three seven received international acclaim for its innovative layering of samples ranging from Jewish cantors to Muslim muezzins to Byzantine priests.
The eclectic group’s sophomore album Do You Have Any Faith?, released on Miles Copeland’s CIA label, moves beyond sampling to present a set of entirely original performances. Featuring a star-studded lineup of guest vocalists—including Tunisian singer Amina Annabi and qawwali singer Riffat Salamat (daughter of legend Ustad Salamat Ali Khan)—the disc opens strongly with “Let There Be Light,” which highlights Barron Cohen’s klezmer-style flute playing against a catchy backbeat. Another strong track is “Raga,” a spacey slice of ambience that shimmers thanks to Salamat’s powerful voice.
Erran, of course, is the brother of Sacha Baron Cohen, the infamous comedian known for Borat and Da Ali G Show, and Erran also provides music for his brother’s various undertakings. While Sacha’s controversial portrayal of the Kazakh people drew outrage from the country’s government, Erran’s score was so well-received that he was commissioned by the Turan Alem Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra to compose a piece using elements from traditional Kazakh melodies.
With Zohar, Cohen combines the music of Middle Eastern cultures that have been in conflict for thousands of years. The end result reveals the compelling similarities between traditional Arabic and Jewish music—a thoroughly modern fusion that not only knocks down barriers, but builds a few bridges too.