Music as Art: A Conversation With Nathan Cohen (נתן כהן)

Nathan Cohen, the wunderkind producer, performer, composer and engineer, is something of an Israeli music godfather. He first made a name for himself during the days of the Yom Kippur War, when together with Yoram Yeruham and Nava Baruchin, he formed HaNeshamot HaTahorot (הנשמות הטהורות). Known also to English-speaking audiences as The Pure Souls, the legendary trio unleashed such classics as ‘Café Etzel Berta’ and ‘Achake Licha’, which went on to be the second most-played song, ever, on Israeli radio. Therefore, as you might imagine, it was an honor to hang out with him at his moshav ranch, near Kfar Saba, one sunny Friday afternoon.

Adjacent to Nathan’s house is his studio where paintings and award-winning records festoon the walls. The floor is covered with guitar stands, microphone stands, a piano, an 88-key MIDI controller and a Macintosh G5. On the desk are speaker monitors and a multi-channel mixing board, with the clutch ash tray. But ours was not a recording session, so Nathan brought me to the next room, to sit down and chat about the music scene in Israel.

It seems the husky, 60-year-old, has not touched the long, curly mop on top of his head since he was released from the IDF, more than forty years ago – when he was first signed to Hed Artsi, the original Israeli recording label, on which he recorded Brechov HaNeshamot Hatahorot. As he chatted with me, he rolled cigarettes and sipped Turkish coffee.

In the early days, Nathan says he was an idealist. He tried to do everything he could to “develop and to learn and to progress.”  He was influenced by the music of the first generation of Israelis, who, he says were influenced by Russian and Yemenite songs. When I asked him to define Israeli music he insisted that, in fact, there is nothing like it, but it is impossible to describe; it is sui generis. An amalgamation of music from everywhere, he insisted, Israeli music and Jewish music are two very different things. Growing up, Nathan had his ears and mind open to the music of America, England, Italy, Spain and France, and along with the influence of the first generation of Zionists, this is where he developed his sound.

I asked him why his music, so often, seems full of dark colors. It was this question, I think, that really unlocked his shy, hidden personality. He says, he “feels stupid making happy music” when he is not happy. His music, he said, “reflects how he feels inside and what he wants to write, not what is in commercial demand.” Nathan says he sees “music as an art, not just a craft. People think music should function as something that makes you happy; for the background or to dance to. But music is meant to be listened to.” Or, it should be approached this way by the composer. “Art” he said “should push you to think about new things; to get to the depth of things.”

Mr. Cohen insisted that he has never been interested in being a celebrity. Instead, he always wanted to be a producer, the off-stage role. This attitude led him to some of his career highlights such as being the most in-demand sound engineer at Tel Aviv’s Sigma studios in the early ’80s, and his successful stint in England from 1987 to 1994.

I asked Nathan if he had any advice for young musicians, to which he replied, “don’t try to be nice. It is pathetic to suck up to people, to try to get them to like you. Stay true to yourself. Don’t try to conform to the formula. What goes on Israeli radio today,” he said “is just recycled formula. Never be afraid to create something new.”

On Nathan Cohen’s website, he offers hours and hours of his songs as free downloads. He says it is his intention to spread the music. Sharing on the Internet, he said, is a “win/win situation.” He also mentioned that he was inspired to do so by Radiohead, who released one of their records on the Internet for free, despite their record company. But there’s a flip-side: “On the Internet people are overwhelmed by the amount of music they come across,” he said, “it is like an open stage for everyone [however] having no filters is not necessarily a good thing, and standards of creativity are all the time going down. Music is not something everyone can do, it is a profession; it takes training.”

Written and published to the blog, Omanoot, in February, 2011. The blog eventually went down and took along all the great content with it. a lot of hard volunteer labor. Oh well, it happens.

About the Author
Scott Krane has been blogging for TOI since 2012. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Tablet, Ha'aretz, The Jerusalem Post and the Daily Caller, among others. He has a degree in Judaic Studies and a Master's in English from Bar-Ilan University. He has learned at Macon Ha'Gavuah L'Torah in Israel and Hadar Ha'Torah Rabbinical Seminary in Brooklyn.
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