Israeli singer-songwriter, performer, composer and actress Riff Cohen is a creative power to be reckoned with. Her uplifting pop tunes, which she sings in a medley of French, Arabic, English and Hebrew, often top the music charts in Israel and are received with increasing enthusiasm by fans in Europe and across the Middle East. Before the coronavirus outbreak she regularly filled Israeli music venues, and tickets for her shows sold out time and again.
But the 36-year-old Cohen didn’t always enjoy the mainstream’s warm embrace. When she first began releasing her joyful melodies in the early 2000s, critics panned her as a noisy eccentric. Perhaps it’s because Cohen adamantly refuses to follow the traditional formula that is dictated to modern, female pop singers.
The singer, who was raised in Tel Aviv by a French-Algerian mother and an Israeli father with Tunisian and French roots, stands out among her Israeli contemporaries with her bold choice not to sing exclusively in English to up her appeal among international audiences. Instead, her avante-garde compositions, which she belts out in a heavy French accent, are loving homages to her family’s Middle Eastern origins. Thick with North African and French pop influences, they reference the experiences that molded her as a third culture child.
Cohen is also not willing to modify her appearance in order to please show-goers. If you expect to see a young woman clad in skimpy outfits sensually dancing onstage, think again. Cohen is more likely to be seen adorned in long, modest dresses, shaking her wild mane of curls to the rhythm of the music while playing several instruments at once.
In her youth, Cohen went through a decade of classic vocal training and later studied musicology at Tel Aviv University. In 2005 she teamed up with her mother Patricia, a poet who writes in French, and turned her mother’s moving poems into groove-filled, lively songs. Three years later she moved to Paris, where she expanded her experience composing music on the piano after winning an artistic scholarship from the Cité des arts international.
Following her stint in the City of Lights, Cohen finally released in 2012 her first album. As its name suggests, “À Paris” was deeply inspired by the time she spent in France. A month later, she was signed by record label AZ Records (the French affiliate of Universal Music). Cohen has since returned to Israel, where her second album, “A La Menthe,” came out in 2015.
For a listener who has not visited this region, Cohen’s performance may seem over-the-top and maybe even bizarre. But for eternal immigrants like myself, whose lives were altered by scuttling between Europe, the US and Israel, her music sounds just like home.
So turn up the speakers, move over your furniture and prepare to be swept up by the gypsy spirit of dance with my three favorite songs by Cohen.
The title track of Cohen’s debut album, this song is a celebration of everything that is utterly annoying and fabulous about life in the French capital. Her most famous oeuvre to date, it includes lyrics that proclaim love for the Parisian lack of parking spots and the gorgeous parquet floors that can be found in most apartments. Cohen pokes fun at the odd particularities of the haughty and eclectic metropolis, dancing and skipping alongside African migrants through tiny Parisian alleyways and markets in a fun video that extols the charms of la vie quotidienne.
Jean qui rit, jean qui pleure
A tune that is as exhilarating as it is pensive, it is a quintessential Cohensque melody that perfectly demonstrates that je ne sais quoi which the singer clearly possesses and which makes her effortlessly lovable. Cohen sings about whistling on a solo journey among those who laugh and those who cry, lurking in the shadows and choosing to see the light. Anyone who suffers from mood swings (which of us don’t during these strange days?) can probably relate and enjoy this cheerful gem.
An early and quite atypical song, “Chut” is a harmonious, quiet and introspective number in which Cohen muses about her passion for travel and her soul’s thirst to wander around without settling down. She refers to herself as “the bird,” and blames her ancestors for sporting a pair of wings on her back that quiver with a disquiet that sends her staggering through the sky.
While the majority of Cohen’s songs feature a carnival-like, colorful atmosphere, here the calm composition puts into focus the artist’s impressive control of her vocals. Somewhat sad but self-accepting, it ends with the touching words: “I climb in a spin, I fall… I swirl, I let go.”