If you have seen Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Brüno, The Dictator, or most recently Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, then you have already heard the work of Erran Baron Cohen.
The English composer, classically trained trumpeter, and yes, older brother of Sacha Baron Cohen, is responsible for composing the soundtracks for these films. He’s also part of a musical group named Zohar, like the foundational Kabbalah text, which Sacha has been known to sing background vocals for. Erran might even be the name inspiration for one of Sacha’s characters in his satire series Who is America: Colonel Erran Morad.
But most importantly, Erran Baren Cohen has a solo Hanukkah album called Erran Baron Cohen Presents: Songs in The Key of Hanukkah, and it is an absolute gem.
I know it’s hard to imagine that anything could top the Borat soundtrack, but you have to hear it to believe it. Though it’s no “Wuhan Flu” (yes, Erran wrote those lyrics), the album is an eclectic mix of klezmer, rap, pop, rock, and more. Released in 2008 by WaterTower Music, it features such accomplished artists as Jules Brooks, Y-Love, Yasmin Levy, Idan Raichel, Avivit Caspi, and Dana Kerstein.
What is upsetting is how long it has taken me to find this album. At this point I’m quite familiar with Hanukkah+ (if you’re not, get on it). And of course I know the Hanukkah classics brought to us by such visionaries as Adam Sandler and the Maccabeats. But Songs in the Key of Hanukkah is a completely different type of Hanukkah album. It is not Hanukkah music masquerading as Christmas music. It is not (entirely) satirical or humorous. It is a fun but thoughtfully constructed album, using Jewish sound and language (Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish!) to celebrate the oiliest of the Jewish holidays. And it is high time that we give it the love and attention it deserves.
The first track, “Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah,” is a fun reinvention of the classic Hanukkah song that was drilled into my head at Jewish day school as a child. This version is much more enjoyable, utilizing a distinct klezmer sound as the beat for rapping in both English and Yiddish. Erran must share his brother’s penchant for dressing up in costumes, as the music video features him as well as featured artist Jules Brookes in beards, sunglasses, and Orthodox-inspired outfits. Y-Love also makes a cameo to rap a verse in Yiddish. Shots of Cohen and Brookes DJing and partying at the club are intertwined with traditional Jewish folk dances and Hanukkah traditions like lighting the menorah.
The next song, “Dreidel,” is very reminiscent of the Borat soundtrack with its Balkan influence. Though it is not the X-rated version of this children’s rhyme I may have been hoping for, it is still a fun version of the song featuring a call and response of “dreidel” that I know will be stuck in my head for the foreseeable future as well as a horn section that makes me want to do the dance from the wedding scene in Fiddler on the Roof.
Next up is a modern version of the Ladino Hanukkah song “Ocho Kandelikas.” Ladino is a blend of Spanish and Hebrew, spoken by Sephardic Jews, and the inclusion of this song on the album reflects the thoughtfulness put into selecting how to best represent a fuller range of Jewish culture. The track starts out with a modern electronic beat that sounds like the kind of ambient music you would hear at a trendy fine dining establishment. This serves as the base for the beautiful and sultry voice of Yasmin Levy, an Israeli singer-songwriter who focuses on Ladino music. Much like the rest of the album, this song is like a childhood memory all grown-up.
The rest of the album is a mix of familiar and original songs. “Spin it Up” and “Look to the Light” both feature Jules Brookes again. These original songs lead to Brookes on “Rock of Ages,” the english version of “Ma’oz Tzur.” If there are any fans of Israeli music reading this, I would recommend checking out “Relics of Love and Light,” a Hebrew duet between Idan Raichel and Avivit Caspi. Yasmin Levy is back on the following song, “A la Luz de la Vela (In the Light of the Candle),” for a flamenco-infused track. This is followed by “My Hanukkah (Keep the Fire Alive),” another original song that features Y-Love and Dana Kerstein with a hip hop inspired sound. Kerstein closes out the album with the second version of one of the most essential Hanukkah songs, Rock of Ages, this time in Hebrew. This classic rendition of “Ma’oz Tzur” is a beautiful way to wrap up the listening experience.
While it may be 12 years old (a bar mitzvah boy!), I strongly recommend making Songs in the Key of Hanukkah the soundtrack to your Hanukkah this year. Put it on while you fry up some latkes or while you light the candles on your menorah. Let it play in the background as you demolish your family or friends in games of dreidel. Listen to it while you gorge yourself on sufganiyot — or, for my fellow Moroccan Jews, sfinge doughnuts. I promise, you and your ears won’t regret it.