So you’ve had enough from the all-you-can-hear music buffet. It’s gone way past indigestion. They sell it as the brand-new-must-listen-to, yet it all sounds like it’s been heard time and time again.
As you’re trying to run away, Riff Cohen’s silhouette rises. You look up. She’s standing there on top of a mount of olives with an oud in one hand and a microphone in the other.
Riff hails from Tel Aviv. She’s of North African Sephardic descent. She sings mostly in French to non-French audiences. Her music could be summed up as an Oriental, trash-pop kind of thing. But don’t bother trying to label it. Her music ditches genre in favour of pure emotion. She’s just Riff Cohen, bubbly at times, melancholic at others. Her career has just taken off, and rest assured, there’s more to come.
I interviewed Riff Cohen at Café Marcel in Monmartre à Paris. We did the interview in English for the fine Shtetl readers (but imagine thick French accents while you read).
Nicolas: You’ve just released the album A Paris. It blends a few different styles: a bit of North African influences, Middle Eastern influences, some rock, electronic beats and so on. Where do you fit in all that?
Riff: Actually my influences are even larger. I started in the alternative scene and this album is in fact the most popular music I have recorded. I tried to be as coherent as possible but I was myself surprised to see how vast the influences ended up being.
Nicolas: How do you want to be seen as an artist?
Riff: In this particular production I wanted to show the rock influence of North African music. But in a trashy and urban way. North African people who live in Israeli cities have no real contact with North Africa. They don’t speak Arabic but at the same time they are rooted in North Africa. I’m kind of like that. When I see my grandmother who’s from North Africa, I can see how different we are. Israel is quite modern, I had a good education but my grandmother can’t read and write. And I see that, wow, if I was born in North Africa, I’d be completely different. I couldn’t wear jeans and t-shirts. My grandmother still wears a scarf over her head and she’s also quite religious.
Nicolas: On the cover of your album, there’s a picture of your grandmother (see below). On the booklet there are pictures of you with the same haircut. Is the album a tribute to her? How important has your grandmother been to you?
Riff: She’s very important to me. She’s a symbol of traditions being wiped out completely by modernity. I feel Israel is doing that and I think it’s not so good. I have the urge to learn everything that she does like cooking or even the way she thinks philosophically. I think it’s very important.
Nicolas: Was your grandmother an inspiration in terms of music as well?
Riff: Of course. My grandparents are from Djerba in Tunisia. They aren’t musicians but they have strong cultural bonds to their home town. My other grandparents are from Algeria. They listen to artists like Maurice El Medioni and… errr… I forgot his name… (extremely long pause here) because it’s Sunday!
Nicolas: I should let people know we’re doing this interview on a Sunday so it’s very chill.
Riff: Oh yeah, it’s Enrico Macias!
Nicolas: Enrico Macias?! He’s a star here in France. How could you forget his name!
Riff: And I even performed on stage alongside him!
Nicolas: It must have been a great experience if you remember it so well!
Riff: (Laughs.) It’s because I ate of lot of olives yesterday during Shabbat and it’s said to be bad for memory.
Nicolas: Ok then I forgive you, but I’m not sure Enrico will! On your album, one particular song caught my attention. You did a cover of Hamza El Din’s tune called Greetings. The original song is an acoustic song with oud, percussions and vocals but you made a kind of trash rock remix version. I loved it, but do you think Hamza would approve?
Riff: I heard the original song was recorded in China. He also lived in NYC so it’s not like he came from a bubble in Africa. He was open-minded so I think he would definitely like it!
Nicolas: On the song A Paris, you talk about the city, what you do here. Coming from Tel Aviv, what do you like about Paris? The handbags? The romantic streets of Montmartre?
Riff: (Laughs.) I really like Paris but this city also has a negative side. I don’t really feel home here. I feel like a stranger. When I live here, I discover myself. That’s how I’ve realised that I’m a Mediterranean person. As for the song, I wanted to show the new Paris. It’s no longer only about Coco Chanel, la Tour Eiffel, being beautiful, glamorous and shiny. It’s also dark sometimes. It’s mixed with many cultures, including North Africa’s. This is Paris today.
Nicolas: How would you compare the music scene in Paris with the one in Tel Aviv or Israel in general?
Riff: I’ve realised that Israel is a peripheral country. When you live in the periphery, you want to be like the centre i.e. Europe or the US. In Israel, musicians are generally aware of what’s going on in the world. But when I talk to young musicians in Paris, they seem to be in a bubble. In Israel, I’m quite surprised that musicians are usually much more open-minded than the ones who are in the centre.
Nicolas: You sing mostly in French but also in Hebrew or Arabic. Do feel more Israeli, Jewish, French, North African?
Riff: It’s quite mixed. In Israel, they call people like me Moroccan French. And it’s true that’s what I am. I’m Jewish, North African, Israeli, French. But deep inside, I see myself as the new generation of Israelis and I feel very Jewish.
Nicolas: Your lyrics feel kind of playful at times. You know, in a childish way. Do you like playing games?
Riff: Yes I play dominos with my grandmother.
Nicolas: Are you a bad loser?
Riff: Yes I am because she’s really good! (Laughs.) She used to play every Shabbat with her friends. And when I play with her, she already knows what I have in my hands!
Nicolas: What place does music have in your life?
Riff: When I was younger I really liked to dance to electronic music like Grime. Then I also went to a lot of classical music concerts when I studied musicology. I’m quite open-minded and it’s a good thing that Tel Aviv is very open when it comes to culture and music.
Nicolas: Did you always want to be a musician?
Riff: When I grew up, I was always in front of MTV, singing. I really liked pop music and it was clear that I wanted to be a singer. When I grew older, I discovered more profound music and I became more of a musician and an intellectual. I got into the alternative scene. But now, I can say I have nothing against pop. My aim is actually to do quality pop music. I’d like to go as far as I can with my record label Universal. Somehow, I’m seeing the world as I did when I was a child, in a happy and very positive way.
Nicolas: If you could choose any musician to adopt you as a goddaughter, who would it be?
Riff: Wow! (Laughs.) It would be Bjork. I kind of grew up in her hands. Not necessarily in terms of music. It’s rather her creativity and open-mindedness. You feel you can do everything. There’s no limit. She blends different sorts of arts. For instance, when you watch her videos, you can really see her whole universe. I feel she educated me. So, Bjork.
Nicolas: In conclusion, it’s official! We have found Bjork’s spiritual daughter. It’s Riff Cohen and you read it here first on Shtetl!
Nicolas Roux has had a love affair with music ever since he was conceived. He’s a keen oolong tea drinker too. When he’s not busy attending some random concert, he writes in the arts and culture sections of various magazines around the world. You can read his writings on culture and music at nicolasroux.com. Listen to Shtetl on the Shortwave this Friday to hear more tracks off of Riff Cohen’s new album.