Israeli composer Tom Cohen bridging cultures at Expo 2020

Conductor says European, Arab, Mediterranean and African traditions make his country’s musical customs and Dubai world fair a perfect match


David Light

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Published: Wed 20 Oct 2021, 6:52 PM

Long before the Abraham Accords’ fruition forged a new era in UAE-Israel friendship, Expo 2020 Dubai had announced its intention to host the regional nation’s pavilion, ushering in an unprecedented cultural exchange and flurry of creative activity. Now, with the world fair in full swing, years of hard work is unfolding not least for maestro Tom Cohen, founder and conductor of the Jerusalem East and West Orchestra.

Over the next six months Israel’s culture and entertainment schedule will include more than 20 events and shows. Every Thursday evening, the pavilion will also celebrate with an Israeli style party. Among the famous names performing will be Yemen Blues, led by the musician Ravid Kahlani, the Anna RF band, Quarter To Africa, The Gil-Ron Shema Ensemble, The Firkaat-El Nur Orchestra and many more. Israel’s most renowned music group, Infected Mushrooms, is also set to stage it’s first ever, large-scale, UAE concert, in the Jubilee Park on December 13.

We spoke to Cohen to find out more.

What can you tell us about the music you have composed for the pavilion? How far did the pavilion’s message, ‘Building a better future together’ inspire you?

Composing the music for the Dubai Expo 2020’s Israeli Pavilion, I tried to imagine — through sound — the future I wish for my country, our region, and basically the world. I have tried to write a harmonious symphony played by instruments from the East and from the West, with influences from all over. I wished to try and give an example of how our diversity enriches us, and how together we can create and achieve a lot of good.

How did you incorporate an Israeli sound into the work and for those unaware what unique instruments from Israel will we be hearing?

For me Israel is special in the sense that it folds in it a very wide and diverse range of cultures and traditions which are all at home, rather than passing visitors. The combination of European, Arab, Mediterranean and African traditions is all part of our DNA as a people, and this is why you will hear the Oud — king of instruments in the Arab world — alongside the European piano, the darbuka with a drum set and electronic sounds.

Coming from a country with a proud musical heritage, how do you modernise or update the classic sounds so as to attract a new audience without putting off the traditionalists?

In general, my artistic vision that led me to create my musical language, which I like to refer to as ‘Levant Music’, comes from studying in-depth all the ancient classical musical traditions around me, and by paying great respect to them and learning from them with enthusiasm. By doing that one might find and define parallel musical patterns allowing me to try and enrich these musical style without compromising their depth or losing significant information. I try to be a part of the evolution, rather than a revolution.

How different was it for you to put together an entire musical programme for a six-month installation as opposed to a normal show?

It was very interesting because I was asked to create music that would catch the listener’s attention immediately and connect them to the message of ‘Building a better future together.’ Simultaneously, it should play for six months meaning the music has to be deep and multi-layered, so you will always find something new in it. The challenge of creating music that would be both highly simple and communicative, and at the same time artistic and complex was a really tricky one. As the music is being presented with a video in the 360 degree room, my partner for the musical recordings, Liron Schaffer, and I give special attention to the piece’s final mix so that the sound experience of the visitor is integral to the pavilion.

What do you hope visitors to Israel’s pavilion learn from their musical experience there?

I hope that all the values that are embodied in Levant Music will make their way into the listener’s thoughts, mind and heart. I wish that people will be able to see my homeland like I would like to see it, and maybe together we can move towards that vision of the future.

Have you visited Dubai before?

I was supposed to perform with the orchestra a few times during the last two years, but this was delayed each time due to Covid-related restrictions. Alas, I never got to visit Dubai, but I’m looking forward to coming. I’m particularly interested in Dubai’s authentic Khaleeji music and its many great artists and musicians who I would love to get to know personally and collaborate with. In that way, I hope the song we released last year Feel Me (with American singer Rechela) - that was written and composed in the Emirates, recorded in Jerusalem, Jaffa and the Kingdom of Bahrain - will be just the first of many exciting artistic exchanges.

Do you believe music really has the power to unite? Have you seen this in action?

I don’t only believe it, I know it. I have experienced it creating music with people who come from countries that are considered to be “enemies” of mine. I have seen it through the love and familiarity my friends and I, from all religions and backgrounds, have created together in the Jerusalem Orchestra East & West. I have seen it with the orchestras I founded with my partners in Montreal and Casablanca. I was privileged to win, together with my orchestra, the prestigious ‘Altin Objectif’ award in Turkey for our latest single - Yalniz Degilsin.

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