Ronen Kozokaro

Interviewed by Lisa Thompson

Family history
I grew up in Israel, in a town in the south called Be’er Sheva. It’s known as the capital of the Negev. Both my parents came from different backgrounds, which is really not common in Israel: normally the Ashkenazis stay within their communities, the Sephardis mingle with their people, and the Mizrahi do the same. But my parents were kind of mixed. My father’s from Romania, [so he’s Ashkenazi] and my mother’s from Libya, so she’s dark skinned [Mizrahi]. There was not really a connection between the two sets of grandparents because they came from such different cultures.

My mother’s family was the closest for us. So, it was the Mizrahi culture [that I grew up in]. We spent most of our Fridays and holidays with my Mizrahi side of the family. [That influenced] everything, from the Friday meals to the singing, the celebrations, the costumes, and the way you are with people. [The way the Mizrahi] interact with people is completely different to the Romanian way.

My mother worked, so I grew up with my auntie babysitting me. That was rare at that time – that both parents were working, not just the father. But my mother was very independent. She was a special needs teacher all her life, sometimes doing some private tuition as well. I don’t actually know what my father’s job was.

Mizrahi traditions
The Mizrahi side is the thing that I relate to – all the holidays, the singing, the special ceremonies. At Passover, for instance, where you have different kind of foods that represent something that relates to the story you are telling in the Hagaddah. One of them is an egg. Normally in an Ashkenazi family, you have one egg in a bowl. But with the Mizrahi where I come from, you have a whole basket with a lot of eggs. As kids, we used to play a game where each of us would be holding a egg and you would see who cracks first. And then we open the eggs and eat them.

The other one was at Purim, which is a bit like Halloween – all the grandchildren dress up. It’s really beautiful. And they make a mixture of cinnamon, sugar, crushed almonds – a bit like granola crumbs – and all the little kids pour oil on top of their fingers for luck. Then your finger dips into the bowl and you mix all the stuff. It’s really fragrant and sweet, very tasty, kind of healthy, and you eat it.

Every Friday I used to go to the synagogue with my grandfather. There were a lot of songs, and obviously it builds up the appetite before the big meal on Friday. A lot of Mizrahi people came from the Arab world, so they knew the language and all the songs, the rhythms – the Arabic and the Mizrahi rhythms are all part of their culture. All the songs we used to sing at the celebrations come from the Mizrahi culture, from North Africa, Morocco and Tunisia, Libya, Egypt. It’s a very different [Jewish] culture from [anywhere else]. It’s slightly different from the Sephardic, although the Mizrahi are descended from the Sephardic Jews: like them, they escaped from the Spanish Inquisition, so the cultures are connected.

The Sephardi and the Ashkenazi, though, they are completely different. Like the way they relate to each other, how open they are, and how they perceive women. The Mizrahi is a much more open society and the Ashkenazi are very strict. Even at Passover, for instance, the Ashkenazi are very strict in what they eat but the Mizrahi, we can eat rice and pulses at Passover.

The family moves to Israel
My father was born in ‘39 as the war started, and they had problems where they lived in Romania. Antisemitism was already rife in those areas, Jews had always been the scapegoats in history. He remembers being a little kid and [having to] run away to hide. And later on, I found out that they changed their name from Lavi – which is lion in Hebrew, and I think relates to one of the old tribes that was called Ariyeh (lion) – to Kozokaro, which is a common name In Romania, like Smith here. They had forged documents when they got on a boat to Israel, and they never changed it back.

[I only found this out] 10 or 15 years ago, when I played [in a band] with a Romanian guy, and he said that Kozokaro was not a Jewish name. So, I called my father and asked him, ‘Is it really our surname?’ He said he was not so sure, I should speak to his older sister. She’s now very, very old, in her nineties, and when I asked her, she said: ‘What? Is Kozokaro not good enough for you?’ And she told me the story of how they ran away from the Nazis and had to change the documents.

My grandfather was in a concentration camp, or work camp, taken there by the army. Apparently in my father’s village, they had the death marches, where they were walking people up and down until everybody died. Horrible stuff. The family ran from one place to another. I still don’t know a lot of the details about it. People don’t want to talk about it. Both my parents were very young, [so they don’t really remember] and then they came to Israel.

I started my musical education from age nine, although I first started playing drums from five or six years old. My father came home with an album by an Israeli band that featured a drum solo. I remember it to this day. I think it’s the only record my father ever brought home. I went to the cupboards, got out the pans and started playing along. Ever since then, I just wanted to play drums. The ironic thing is that when I was very young, my parents couldn’t take me to functions like Bar Mitzvahs and weddings because I was afraid of the loud music! And then I became a drummer, making the most noise of all!

So, I started from very young and I was really the first musician in my family. There were songs, of course, especially on the Mizrahi side, at all the festivals, and in the synagogue. They sing, and they have their own kind of melodic stuff. But my parents were not musical. My father never understood my need [for music], but my mother was very supportive.

After Be’er Sheva, where I was born, in 1977, when I was about nine, we moved to Arad, which is a tiny place near the Dead Sea. It’s beautiful. The town had a wonderful Conservatoire. It was a kind of a golden age in Arad. A lot of very good musicians came from that place. I went to a normal school [during the week] and then on top of that, after school, I used to have ensemble once a week, orchestra rehearsal, plus performances throughout the year, and private tuition. So that’s [how it was] up until I joined the Army.

I did the compulsory three years [national service]. That included combat, which was really hard, physically and mentally. I was in Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, you name it. During my second year in the Army is when the first Intifada started. We were on a special commander course, and they took us straight to Gaza, to a refugee camp, where we spent a couple of weeks. That wasn’t nice. You don’t want to be there and you end up in Lebanon, part of a bomb disposal unit.

Music college
The music started again after I left the Army. I worked with my father to save up, and then I went to a specialist, private college of jazz and contemporary music for three years [in Tel Aviv]. Coming from a very small town, I was very ambitious. In the first year, I did everything I could: recording, playing, composing, embracing everything on offer. In my second year I got a scholarship. And in my third year I got a working scholarship, so I was in charge of the music. By the end of the first year, I was already working professionally in musicals. In the second year there was more work, third year even more, so I had to juggle my studies with my musical career. I worked really, really hard. But by the time I was 25, 26, I’d had enough. I was not so sure that this is what I wanted to do with my life. I just didn’t want to play any more. I’d burnt myself out.

Moving to London
So I wanted to make a change. Then there came an opportunity with a couple of friends to move to London, so I took it. Also, politically, Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel, got murdered by a fundamentalist, and I didn’t want to live in a state of war. I felt that the country was going to go down. This was 1996.

And then I got married. I married someone also from Arad, my brother married someone from the neighbourhood, and my sister’s husband lived in the same building. We were on the fourth floor, and he was on the first floor! Amazing. My wife said that she wanted to learn classical music, so I said, ‘Let’s get married and go to London.’ We got married in Israel. And on the week that Diana died, in September 1997, we came here.

I actually didn’t want to do any music to start with. It felt like a kind of a crossroads because I always had a dream of becoming a drummer, and when I was 25, 24, I did it: I performed with major artists in Israel and recorded and really had a very successful career. So, what should I do now? While my wife was at university, I worked at different things that I’d never done before. [And] I didn’t want to know anything about Israelis. I didn’t want to have any connection to the past. But I can’t hide the fact that I’m from Israel.

I was working for a company that worked with dancers, and I started making music for them as part of my technical work as an editor. Then came an offer to play for dance classes and that was when I started my new phase in music with dance. Working with dance is fantastic, combining visuals and music. You need to be a good improviser, to be in the moment and that is very good for me. I’m very multidisciplinary, I like to hear other people. Take me to places: let’s go to places that I’ve never been and explore that, try that. That’s what I like about working with dancers.

Now I’m working at Trinity Laban in Deptford. It’s a Conservatoire of Music and Dance, the biggest in Europe. I’m teaching there, both doing lectures and workshops about music and dance, and playing for concerts every day, working with their dance company Transition. I love it. [It makes me] feel alive, it really suits me.

My band Shir
We call Shir ‘complete Jewish music’ because we play music from all of the diaspora. Shir is the ultimate klezmer band, because we not only perform at weddings, we are part of the community. We do all the ceremonies. And when we go into a Sephardic wedding, we do all the Sephardic songs. When we do a Mizrahi wedding or Bar Mitzvah, we do the Mizrahi songs. Sometimes it’s Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, so we do both. We also perform in synagogues: Finchley Reform Synagogue, Bevis Marks, we’ve performed in synagogues all over England. So, for me, coming from Israel and being completely secular there, then coming to England and Shir is now a big part of my life, so suddenly, I’m kind of coming back to Judaism. Being in the band, being in synagogues [means I am] learning about the richness of the Jewish culture, learning new songs, new cultures.