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WORLD MUSIC REVIEW

Another Baron Cohen who's trying on identities

Erran, brother of Sacha, and his Zohar group sample sounds from all over. But who are they?

July 21, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

The question that came to mind while awaiting the arrival of the group Zohar at the Skirball Center on Thursday night was whether the music would be straight or satirical. Zohar's leader, after all, is Erran Baron Cohen, brother of Sacha Baron Cohen, and the composer of the soundtrack music for "Borat."

But no luck. Baron Cohen, playing flugelhorn and synthesizer keyboards, often pushing buttons on a laptop computer, offered no moments of satire, sarcasm or whimsy. His entire modus operandi was dedicated, instead, to the creation of a melting pot of music incorporating elements of Middle Eastern music, electronica, samples and ambient dance grooves.

One could, of course, surmise that the final portion of Zohar's program -- which was overtly dedicated to getting the crowd to its feet via the most simplistic, repetitive dance rhythms imaginable -- had its own burlesque aspects. But the initial part of the program suggested more intriguing possibilities. Performing selections from the group's CDs "Do You Have Any Faith?" and "onethreeseven," the rag-tag mixture of sounds and rhythms occasionally suggested something more than a pastiche of ideas and attitudes.

It was at its best, for the most part, when vocalist Avivit Caspi Tsemah was placing her Middle East-inspired singing, with its roving melismas and melodic ornamentations, over the stirring rhythms of bassist Buys Stephen Johan and drummer Preston Heyman. Tsemah's vocals, as well as Baron Cohen's flugelhorn playing, were further enhanced by electronic chorusing, and most of the tunes were synced to preset computer sequencing that added dense layers of sound.

Too often, however, Zohar sounded like a group in search of an identity, tossing a little of this and a little of that to see what might stick to the wall. And it's strange that Baron Cohen hasn't found more creative inspiration in the source of the group's name -- a book, meaning "Splendor," of the mystical Jewish cabala.

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