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Israeli musician Riff Cohen
Israeli musician Riff Cohen
Stéphanie Binet

TELAVIV – February 2013. Tel Aviv gets ready to celebrate Purim, a biblical celebration that along the centuries has become a sort of carnival where Israelis drink -- as the tradition goes -- “until they cannot remember their name.” There are long lines in front of costumes shops.

Riff Cohen, will get as drunk as she can to celebrate Purim, but will not go to a nightclub wearing a fancy-dress costume. Even though the 28-year-old singer is the daughter of bohemian parents who had a café in Shenkin Street, one of Tel Aviv’s coolest streets, she observes religion strictly. Nevermind that she has just signed her first album – “oriental rock trash” as she describes it. She fits right in in Tel Aviv – a city that is religious and secular, cultural and mixed.

Riff explored her origins in order to compose A Paris, the song that made her famous. Following the success of Israeli singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan, a whole new generation of Israeli musicians has emerged. They all have one commonality – it is in their grandparents’ history before they came to Israel, where these young musicians find their inspiration.

To tell us her story, Riff told us to meet her in Yafo, her favorite neighborhood of Tel Aviv because “There are many Israelis Arabs.” Her paternal grandmother lives there.

To illustrate her new album, which came out six months ago in Israel, she chose a photo of her grandfather, aged 14, leaving Djerba, Tunisia for Palestine.

For its French version of the album, coming out in June, she used a photo of herself in pigtails. She looks the same, even though she has a very different look today: red leather pants and a military vest. Riff does not look very religious.

While eating her tuna and Harissa paste sandwich, she explains, “If I had stayed in Tel Aviv, I never would have started honoring Shabbat. Living in Paris, far away from home, I wanted to understand who I was. When I would tell Parisians that I was a Israeli Jew, I would either get a positive and interested response or a very nasty one. This is when I understood I was different. I was Israeli, but I did not know where I was from, I felt transparent. Our quest for modernity, in Israel, made me an empty person. Erasing our past is a mistake, it is so rich.”

In Paris, she met Cheikha Rabia, a 70-year-old Raï (Arab folk music) singer, whom she invited to perform on her music clipA Paris. Riff had been a huge fan of Arab folk music for years: Hamza el-Din, Cheikha Rimitti… “It’s the music of my origins,” she says, “even though my grand-parents listened to Enrico Macias.”

Her maternal grandfather, a Jewish mechanic from Algeria, moved his 11 brothers to Nice, in the south of France afterAlgeria’s independence. Born in Tlecem, Algeria, Riff’s mother lived in southern France until she turned 19, and went on holiday to Tel Aviv where she fell in love with Riff’s father on a hippy beach. Her father was born in Israel to Tunisian parents.

For her French songs, Riff Cohen borrowed poems written by her mother. Except for one song, Une femmes assise sur un tapis (A woman sitting on a carpet) – “a tribute to my grandmother,” she says. “I wrote it in Hebrew and she translated it. My French is not good enough. I’ve been stealing her poems since I was 14.” In the rest of the album she sings psalms in Hebrew to a traditional music or a disordered rock.

A multicultural city

After graduating from art school at 18, Riff went to live in Florentine, Tel Aviv’s student neighborhood. “There were many musicians. In our apartment we had several rooms, we soundproofed one of them so we would use it only for music. Today, my old neighbors are all famous in Israel, one of them is Tomer Yosef, the lead singer of Balkan Beat Box, a Yemeni Jew.”

In the same neighborhood there was also the group Axum, whose two rappers are of Ethiopian and Yemeni descent. Their sound engineer/producer is Sabbo, the same producer who mixed Riff’s album.

With his accomplice Kutiman – an electro funk composer who became famous with an online video music project called ThruYOU, featuring a sample of music videos from YouTube – Sabbo has just produced the first mini-album of Israeli born Ethiopian soul singer Ester Rada.

Ester, 29, gives us the address of an Ethiopian restaurant in Florentine. Born in Kiryat Arba, an Israeli settlement near Hebron, Ester mixes Ethiopian Jazz and American Soul, like in her song Life Happens.

Her parents arrived in Israel in 1984: “My grandfather was a tailor,” she says, “he had been dreaming of leaving Ethiopia since the creation of Israel. With all my family, they went to Sudan, where Israel had sent airplanes to bring people to the Promised Land. I was born a year later.”

The first ten years of Ester’s life were spent in the Kiryat Arba settlement . “It was not a place where to bring up children,” she says. “We were close to the border and we were protected by soldiers, there were bombs and rocks being thrown. I was two years old during the first Intifada and we stayed in Kiryat Arba until 1995. I kept it all inside, I was never able to talk about what I was feeling.”

Unlike Riff, Ester was not able to get out of Israel’s mandatory military service (two years for women, three for men), but managed to find a posting that wasn’t too exposed. “At the beginning of the service, we are trained in a military camp where we are taught how to use weapons. I cried all the time, I couldn’t stop myself. Luckily, they gave me a microphone and told me to sing for the troops. I sang the songs of Israeli artists Shalom Hanoch and Achinoam Nini – also known as Noa. Somewhere in my head, different types of music were mixing together: folk, religious, hip-hop, soul from my teenager years and the Ethiopian jazz of my parents.”

According to her producer, Kutiman, such a multicultural mix is natural process for Israeli musicians: “Israeli music does not exist,” he says in a bar in Yafo, “there is Russian music, eastern European music or Yiddish music. Mixing it all up is very natural for us, we look back to the tradition of the Middle East, and we mix it with electronic music, funk or rock to make it our own.”

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