The conductor who loves Andalusian music and has a feel for crowd favorites
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The conductor who loves Andalusian music and has a feel for crowd favorites

Tom Cohen grew up in Beersheba, lives in Brussels, directs orchestras in five countries and is back in Acre for the Arabesque Festival

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Not every classically trained, mandolin-playing conductor composes a piece of TV theme music that becomes the anthem of football stadiums and fans.

That’s what happened to Tom Cohen, who composed the theme music of “Zaguri Imperia,” and whose “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,” has become the fan refrain at many Israeli soccer games.

But that’s old news.

The 36-year-old is currently back in Israel — from his current home in Brussels — to direct Acre’s second Arabesque Festival, June 11 to 15, featuring Arabic and Andalusian music performed by Arab and Jewish artists, including Miri Mesika, Sarit Hadad, Raymond Abecassis, the Firqat El Nour Orchestra and Violet Salameh.

Each performer will sing in their native tongue and in the other languages as well, creating connections that they’re curious about forging, said Cohen.

“It’s a real fantasy for me as a musician to be hosting, in one evening, huge Israeli stars like Mesika or Hadad next to a legend like Violet Salameh,” said Cohen.

That’s the message of the festival, said Cohen, as the music shows that everyone involved shares the same culture, identity and traditions, “we share the same roots,” he added.

Andalusian music, classical Arabic music played across the Levant, is a crucial part of Cohen’s life, and it has been for his entire career.

When Cohen, 36, was a child in Beersheba, Arabic music and language were heard in his neighborhood, but they didn’t exist on the mainstream stages, it was the language of the enemy, he said.

With the advent of YouTube and Facebook, nothing is that black and white anymore, said Cohen, and the message can be more complex.

Cohen’s love for Andalusian music began when he was still in his teens, and was hired to help the music arranger of what was then the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra; there are now several Andalusian orchestras.

He eventually became the head conductor of the orchestra — “it was like going from sous chef to chef,” he said — and began getting invitations from orchestras around the world.

You could call Cohen something of an Andalusian music expert.

He is currently the musical director and conductor of the Jerusalem East and West Orchestra (and is marking ten years in that position); directs and conducts the MED or Mediterranean orchestra in Brussels, where he also lives with his Lebanese-born wife and their son; he founded and manages an Andalusian band orchestra in Montreal, made up of Canadian musicians with Western classical training; and is the conductor and co-director of an orchestra that operates in France and includes Algerian musicians.

Finally, he founded another orchestra in Morocco, the home of Andalusian music, established on the personal request of the King of Morocco.

There are many Andalusian orchestras in Morocco, but they wanted Cohen because of the way he works, he said.

“We are trying to create a new musical language, and it’s most natural in places like Jerusalem or Acre where both Western and Eastern cultures have lived and existed for thousands of years as native culture, not as visitors,” said Cohen.

He doesn’t see it as a fusion of East and West, but rather forging a new language.

“Our approach is different,” said Cohen. “We’re not just focused on Andalusian music, we’re a lot less about preservation. For me, the best way is to take the core of what made this thing amazing and genius and dress it up in new clothes, with Western harmonies, in ways that add more value. I’m trying to create music that if you know this music, you will appreciate the work done on it, and if you never heard it, you can understand it.”

Cohen feels that he and other young musicians from Israel and other places continue to have a deep love and respect for tradition, living and breathing it in their music, and “continuing the legacy, taking it to the next stage,” he said.

And finally, back to “Zaguri Imperia,” which was created and written by Maor Zagori, an actor friend of Cohen’s, who based the popular Yes drama on his own Moroccan family.

When they were tossing around the idea for the show, Zaguri said Cohen would compose the theme music. But when that moment finally arrived, Zaguri kept rejecting everything that Cohen created. Finally, Cohen came up with the music that ultimately was used for the show, but Zaguri didn’t like that, either.

“I told him, ‘Listen, this is the one,'” said Cohen. “‘Kids on school trips and football stadiums will sing it.'”

Zaguri trusted him, and used it. Months later, he called Cohen, and held his phone up, so that Cohen could hear the crowds singing his music at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, after the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team won the European championship.

“30,000 people were singing it,” said Cohen, who has also produced albums and performances for singers Ninet Tayeb, Omer Adam, Berry Sakharof, Ehud Banai and Dudu Tassa.

He feels lucky to get to do what he does, and the upcoming Acre Festival is the peak of that sensation, said Cohen.

“It’s having the chance to make your dream come true, and getting paid for it,” he said.

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