Jacob Cohen

Image courtesy of the artist

Why a cello? You’ve been well-traveled and you chose one of the difficult instruments to carry around.

When I was 9 years old my school started everybody playing a stringed instrument.  They measured all of our hands and depending on the size that’s what instrument we got to play.  The kids with small hands were given violins; those with large hands were assigned to play the bass.  I had cello hands.  For years I played in both the school and community orchestras and had a private teacher that would instruct me weekly on how to position my fingers and the proper way to hold and play the instrument.  When my daughter was born back in 2005 I put the cello away for a few years.  It wasn’t until years later when I was 25 that I connected with a group of experimental young musicians and artists in Harlem that I was first inspired to improvise on the cello.  I soon fell completely in love with spontaneous creativity and began to play full-time in the subway and freelance as a gigging cellist.  After I developed my style I was offered a few gigs around the world.  The wooden cello had to have its own seat on airplanes due to its fragility.  I got to travel to many places including Japan, India, Thailand, Poland, Cyprus, Germany, and China.  I dragged or carried my cello through all those places. It always gets a lot of stares, especially in India.  People there would gather around me to see what was happening before I even took the instrument out of its case. When I was heading into the Himalayas I had to strap my cello to the top of a van during hurricane season and drive deep into the mountains to play a gig in a small village. Now I have a carbon fiber cello that I don’t have to worry about as much.  I have been working at the Rikers Island correctional facility running a music and art program in which I often let the detainees play my instrument.  I have been carrying my cello through those hallways for years now and I have become known to everybody in Rikers as “Cello.”

What are your musical references? How did different travel experiences contribute to it? Is it more about the cultures per se or the status of alienation that came along, if that ever existed?

One of my earliest influences, as is common with most cellists, was Bach.  I was always drawn to the cello suites and never went too far beyond them in my classical training.  Pablo Casals was my favorite Cellist growing up.  I really liked how Yo Yo Ma played Paganini.  I also liked Vivaldi as a kid.  Growing up I would listen to a lot of hip-hop artists like Talib Kweli, Mos Def, the Fugees, and a lot of others which influenced me pretty early.  My mother was always playing Otis Redding.  I loved Bob Marley and a lot of other musicians I can’t even remember now.  Nirvana.  It wasn’t until way later that I discovered free jazz of Sun Ra and avant-garde music and experimental electronic music scene in Brooklyn.

After travelling I was exposed to Indian Classical music, which I really loved the way that they were sliding between the notes rather than being stuck in a Western scale.  I was influenced a lot by playing with a group of Syrian refugees in Warsaw.  They also were using a lot of microtones in their music that are unfamiliar to the western ear but translate very well into cello techniques.  Again when I was in Cyprus I was exposed to different scales when I collaborated with a Turkish lap-harp player from a Sufi tradition.  I like how spiritual the music was.  When I was in Cyprus they would always blast the Muslim prayer through loudspeakers several times throughout the day, which were incredibly beautiful.  My latest influence has been from my time in working with the inmates in Rikers Island, where Hip-Hop is the main art form that the kids are deeply invested in.  Music is such a huge part of their identity that it has been amazing to work with them and adjust to their aesthetic.  It has been incredible experiencing the universal connection that people have with music everywhere around the world.  Without speaking the same language or having the same life experiences we are all able to immediately feel the energy that is being exchanged when music is being created live.

Jacob Cohen playing at the New Museum. Image courtesy of the artist

Your performances always occur in public spaces and that includes a lot of interactions with people. Also to my understanding, impromptus are more like to have a casual talk than to give a curated speech. What’s the difference between communicating via music and communicating via words, putting aside the linguistic barriers? 

They say the cello is closest instrument in range to the human voice.  There is something particularly resonant about this instrument.  Music activates some ancient pre-lingual part of our brain that does not need to be clarified with language; I feel more in-tune with the way people are feeling and responding to my music than I do with words.  There are many people that I played music with before they ever heard me speak.  We can follow each other and play like we have ben playing together for years based on the feelings and ideas in the musical expression.  It is all happening very quickly on a level that is not even conscious.  The music is ingrained into my fingers.  I struggle to express myself through words but my self-expression through my music flows freely.  Music has become my voice and it is powerful beyond any words.

What’s your favorite subway moment?

It’s funny because a lot of what I do in my subway performance is close my eyes and go into a trance in which I am barely perceptive of anything happening around me.  Closing my eyes has often helped me to focus completely on the music and stop trying to think about what is happening on the platform.  I think for that reason a lot of what happens in the subway just feels like one continuous meditation.  I have two-second interactions with people before they jump onto the train in which they can tell me they like my music and would like to hire me for something and take my card or leave me theirs.  The most exciting moments come when they reach out and make some type of offer for a gig.  Sometimes they are good, mostly very minor.  One time Matisyahu heard me playing at the Bedford Ave L platform and he invited me to play with him for a packed house at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.  He let me come out and play for the crowd alone then he joined me on stage and was beatboxing to my music.  The crowd was really responsive and it was a great experience.

Another story came to my mind.  I can’t say this is my favorite subway moment, but it is one that stands out to me as I write this.  One time, on New Years Eve, I was hired straight from the Union Square L platform to play for an orgy.  A guy in a suit came up and asked me to play for him and his friends in their apartment and they would give me some money so I thought to myself why not.  I went with them to the apartment and they told me they actually wanted me to set up in the bedroom.  They all did a few lines of blow as I was setting up and began to play.  Soon they were all making out, then their clothes started to come off.  Before long they were just fucking each other in front of me while I was trying to concentrate on my music.  Eventually they told me to get out and handed me $40.  I protested and said that’s not enough. One of the girls climbed off of her partner, reached into her purse, and handed me some more cash.  I left out of that apartment thinking in my head this life is funny.

Jacob Cohen playing at a subway station. Image courtesy of the artist

I particularly like the picture you use for your bandcamp page that shows several police officers walk by you while you’re playing. what’s your relationship with public authorities, at home or abroad?

I have never been arrested or ticketed for street performing.  The most they ever did was tell me to move. I have been arrested in my personal life and I have also had my apartment raided by police.  The police scare me.  They have traumatized me on several occasions.  When I was living in Harlem in 2010 a SWAT team kicked down my door at 7 in the morning with guns out and flashlights in my eyes.  I did not even know it was the police, at first I thought we were being robbed.  They hit my friend in the face with a riot shield.  The feeling of being under arrest is terrible.  When I was a teenager I was charged with a felony, which ultimately was dropped but still gave me a little taste of what the future could have held for me had I done something a little bit worse.  The police in New York City are a constant presence, particularly if you are in a Black or Hispanic neighborhood.  Going into Rikers Island I saw that something like 95% or more of the detainees are Black and Hispanic. Its like they are harvesting young men from the streets once they are of the ripe age of 16 and shipping them Upstate. I get the feeling that police are carrying out some horrific shit just so they can get a paycheck and a pension.  That being said, I have had many good interactions with police during my time as a street performer.  Many of them are music lovers like the rest of us and a few officers have even tipped me.  It is interesting because in Rikers I work mostly with the detainees, but the corrections officers are also there in the room interacting with me.  They listen to the music, sometimes they are rapping or singing with the kids too.  It is nice to be able to bring something unifying to an environment that puts the officers and detainees at odds with each other all the time.

I’ve heard that you’re developing an art program for incarcerated youth at Rikers Island lately. Please share with us some more details. 

Since 2014 I have been going into Rikers Island to perform and run music and art workshops in the housing units for incarcerated youth age 16-21.  I started off volunteering one or two days a week, but now I am working full-time on the Island in collaboration with a program called the Youth Reentry Network. I run 6 hour-long sessions four days a week. I am on the front lines connecting with hundreds of kids and collaborating with them.  At first I was playing for them the same music that I performed in the subway.  Then they started to ask me to play Hip-Hop.  I began to develop a percussive style that incorporates plucking, strumming, and banging on the body of the instrument like a drum.  A lot of the kids have notebooks full of music that they have been writing, so I get to create live music to back them up.  There is a lot of talent in Rikers.  I have participated in some of the wildest jam sessions that I have ever seen. If you play something they identify as Hip-Hop, then the kids go crazy pouring out lyrics, energy, metaphors and pure swag.

I have also been drawing them.  I started drawing portraits about 2 years ago and they quickly became incredibly popular with the kids.  As my skills develop, the interest grows.  Now I am really able to capture the spirit of the individuals.  I have been compiling 20-page pamphlets of my drawings, which I carry around with me to show to the kids that I work with.  These pamphlets have become like a social media for the kids in which they are writing in comments by hand on the pictures of their friends.

Another aspect of my program is connecting with the youth once they are released.  One day a week I am spending in the Youth Reentry Network office in Harlem to record music with my participants.  There is a huge interest in recording, producing, and engineering music, which has been a great draw for the kids to come participate in the organization.  Once they are in the office they can get connected to school and job opportunities as well as become integrated into a positive community of peers.

Also I’m curious about how people in relatively isolated environments understand art/music practice. Does that create more possibilities of devotion comparing to those who are reigned over by the information regime?

The way the housing units are in Rikers Island is ideal for intimate cello performances.  The walls are cinderblocks and the acoustics reverberate and fill the space in a very beautiful and striking way.  The small audience insures a personal experience for the observers, both detainees and officers.  Not having any type of distraction helps because nothing interesting happens on the units.  Most of the time the kids spend milling around talking shit to each other and acting like gangsters, posturing around and threatening each other with violence.  To come in with a different experience that both inmates and officers can enjoy and appreciate together is damn near revolutionary.  A lot of the kids spend their time writing rhymes and when they are given the opportunity to perform or collaborate with me they are often more than happy to do it.  They are an incredibly participatory audience.  They will tell you exactly what they think and how the music makes them feel.  Since music is such a huge part of the culture, it was fairly easy to gain acceptance among the population.  Most people that come to visit the housing units are there to conduct investigations or tell the kids everything they are doing and thinking is wrong.  I go in and just hang with them and connect with them on a creative level.  It transforms the entire space.  Art and music has the power to change our physical reality.  It can transport us to a different place entirely, so I think that within the context of the jail it is particularly powerful and resonant.  A lot of the kids that I have worked with expressed to me how memorable the experience of hearing me play and engaging with my program has been for them.  Sometimes I meet a kid once and don’t see him again for over and year and we just pick up right where we left off.  I have spent a lot of time performing in the New Admissions unit so they meet me when they first arrive on the Island.  I think this helps to set the tone for the building and create a different expectation for them for their experience of incarceration.

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