Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

September/October 2008: Curtis Fuller

Michal Cohen:
Other-Worldly Sounds

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Every year, the Israeli Concert Series presents an exciting combination of jazz, folk and world influences within the context of Israeli music. This year, the series is off to a vibrant start with singer and composer Michal Cohen who is taking the stage with Steve Kirby, Will Bonness, Winnipeg clarinetist Myron Schultz, and New York drummer Ted Poor.

An Israeli musician of Yemenite descent, Michal brings a dynamic sound to the stage. Her music ranges from early Yemenite folk songs to modern jazz, and includes a range of different languages. Her 2004 album Henna combines ancient desert melodies with modern beats. She moves seamlessly between time signatures and through an exotic variety of harmony and rhythms. Whether she is soaring over a net of electronic sounds or singing a capella with percussion, her voice and her music are always moving.

I reached Michal by phone in Israel and asked her about her musical life.

When did you decide that music was going to become your profession?

As a little girl I sang along with any music I heard, but I actually wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor. In high school I joined a singing group. Avi Elbaz, a composer, started instructing the group and he pushed me to study music. We have been working together since then and will be releasing a CD in a few months. When I finished high school, I went to Rimon College of Music in Israel. But I completely dived into music when I went to Berklee College in Boston a year later. This was thanks to the amazing support of Carole and Joe Zimbrolt—they both passed away in recent years. Carole was born and raised in Winnipeg, which makes this show very special to me.

How do you seek your projects and musical experiences?

Berklee is known for its variety of people, cultures and styles. I got to know so many great musicians there. You develop contacts, collaborate, brainstorm. You build yourself through time and work. As for the Henna project, my father passed away in 2000. It made me look back into my heritage, and I started listening to Yemenite music and composing in Hebrew.

What is your procedure when embarking on a new project?

I try to figure out the concept, collect materials, and do research. Then I find the right musicians, rehearse, and start performing or recording. Some projects take more time to figure out, and some don’t work out exactly as you want them to—you have to make decisions and changes if necessary. I like working on a few things at the same time, especially if they are different from one another.

You have worked with a variety of internationally-acclaimed musicians. What do you search for in others while making music?

I love original music. When someone approaches me with a project, I want to feel connected to it, and I want to be sure I can deliver the sound they are looking for. I also look to be challenged, musically and technically. I love different styles, and I need versatility. I love to be part of the creative process.

What is your vision for the future? Is it specific or are you going where the wind leads you?

The best thing for me would be to keep making music with such beautiful musicians, and to keep  making a living from music as well. I moved back to Israel a year and a half ago. I am putting out a new CD soon, and I hope that will be a success. I must admit that I have usually flowed with life and with music, and it has generally brought me to wonderful places I never imagined. I never had the child’s dream of becoming a singer, so my career has been a great development in my life.

The music of Henna is so compelling. What images and emotions does it project in your mind?

Both my parents came to Israel from Yemen as children, and I was born and raised for a few years in a Yemenite town. So I think of the Henna celebrations there. All of us kids got to have henna on our hands, and the music is loud and wonderful—women singing, dancing, and playing the “pach” as a drum. (“Pach” is kind of a big olive can with a great sound.) I see my mom singing and cooking in the kitchen—she makes great food! I think of my sweet and funny grandmother sitting on the step outside using special stones to make “schoog,” a hot Yemenite sauce. I think of my grandfather, a Yemenite rabbi, sitting on mattresses on the living room floor around a hookah, teaching, smoking, and chewing gat. I think about my grandparents’ stories from Yemen. For me, Henna captures those amazing times in my life. Thank you for asking me this question—it made me smile, and made me remember even more!

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