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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Weekender: Beth Bahia Cohen wants us to understand traditional music, each other

The musician and music department faculty member shares her incredible story.


A wall of instruments in Beth Bahia Cohen’s house is pictured.

Beth Bahia Cohen, a local musician, faculty member in the Tufts music department and assistant professor at Berklee College, has dedicated her life to the learning and teaching of violin styles across the world. On top of these goals, Cohen teaches violin traditions of the world in private lessons to students at Tufts. The Daily sat down with her on Oct. 22 to learn her story.

Walking into Cohen’s house, it is immediately clear that one is entering the home of an artist. The bookshelves were filled with sheet music and books on various musical styles. The walls were decorated with photography and marbled paintings, all of which were created by Cohen herself, a showcase of her many talents. Most striking, though, was the music room; the entirety of the back wall was filled with a stunning collection of bowed instruments.

On her wall, there was an intricately engraved violin from Norway. There were several lyras from different parts of Greece, and a bowed Turkish string instrument called a “kabak kemane,” which Cohen explained is named for its gourd-like shape. There was an instrument on a stand in front of her keyboard which looked a bit like a long-necked banjo, but with beautiful designs. She picked up this instrument, called a yaylı tambur, and played a short sample of a slow, mysterious piece unlike anything one might hear in Western musical traditions. She explained that the instrument’s unique sound came from its sympathetic strings — strings which were not played directly, but picked up the vibrations from the two bowed strings and enriched their sound. 

Cohen knew the name of each instrument and where it came from; each seemed to have its own story. She has collected them slowly over her lifetime. Her first and primary instrument, though, was the violin, which she first started playing at the age of seven at the encouragement of her parents.

“[My parents] went to a concert of the Queen’s College Orchestra, and they saw all these young women with long black dresses playing violin, and somehow they saw me doing that. So that was it.”

Though she was trained classically, Cohen grew up surrounded by music from Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

“My father’s family is from Aleppo, Syria — Syrian Jews — and my mother’s [family] was born in Ukraine, so Ashkenazi Jewish,” Cohen said. At family gatherings on the Arabic side, “there was always Arabic music playing and there was always a violinist in the band.”

On the Ashkenazi side, Cohen’s mother, aunts and grandmother would sing Yiddish songs. “My mother and I used to play Klezmer music,” she said. “So I heard different musical languages when I was little, all the way growing up.”

Cohen enjoyed the violin, but playing it wasn’t initially her plan to be a violinist. After high school, she decided to quit playing to find out what her life would be like without it.

“I asked myself, ‘What are the reasons people play music?’” Cohen said. “I wanted to choose it. I wanted to be convinced of it. And over the years that followed, I found some really great answers.”

One of the most profound answers she got was from a record she listened to of a Vietnamese woman singing a lullaby to her baby.

“[There were] no instruments; she was singing by herself in Vietnamese, and it was so beautiful and so kind,” she recalled. “And then I realized, that’s one reason people do music: for love, for comfort. That was enough for me.”

After she started playing violin again, she went to the Center for World Music in California where she found a teacher named T.N. Krishnan. Krishnan was a famous player of Carnatic music, a form of classical music deriving from South India. She loved the devotional, virtuosic style of his music. He was the first teacher who taught her to play by ear, without using notation.

“That’s when I had a vision of what I wanted to do,” Cohen explained. “I loved studying with him, [and] he was the first teacher I had who wasn’t western. I thought, ‘Whoa, he’s introducing me to this world of music and it’s so deep and so old and so beautiful.’ And then I realized I wanted to be a student of different violin traditions.”

After deciding on her path, Cohen realized she first had to work on her classical technique in order to play with greater ease. She returned to New York and found a teacher who taught her how to play and teach more comfortably. She got her master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, and from there started freelancing. She performed in everything from symphony orchestras to Broadway shows.

When Cohen left New York for the Boston area, she transitioned once again from classical violin to world music. She met some Hungarian musicians, formed her own band and went many times to Hungary to study and to perform.

Around this time, she joined an all-women’s chorus. Initially, they mainly played music from Bulgaria, but they later began playing music from across the world. This was how Cohen first discovered Greek music. Shortly after, she joined a group which only played Greek music from all different regions.

“We used to travel around and play these concerts that had music from all parts of Greece,” she said. “Greek Americans would come and they would be from different parts of Greece. So whenever their region was sung about or played about, they would stand up and sing along. Others would dance, others would cry; it was very powerful because it reminded them of their childhood. It was a beautiful thing to do.”

She spent years playing Greek music in various groups, building a wide repertoire. She would also discover Turkish music, which required completely different techniques on the violin and on other bowed strings. She discovered a recording of a Turkish kemençe player and was inspired to study with him. A Turkish musician friend of hers happened to have gone to high school with him and connected the two.

“[My friend] picked up the phone and called him. He said, ‘Cohen is coming to Istanbul this summer; take care of her.’”

Sure enough, that summer, Cohen went to Istanbul. There, at the suggestion of another friend, she discovered the yaylı tanbur. 

“Before I went, one of my friends said to look for this instrument called the yaylı tanbur … I did come across it, and I tried it, and I said ‘Wow.’”

When she returned to America, her Turkish friend gifted her the very yaylı tanbur still in her home.

After that trip, Cohen continued to study a variety of styles from many teachers on both violin and local bowed string instruments, and acquired a richly varied repertoire of world music. She has spent time learning and performing Arabic, Klezmer, Romanian and Norwegian music on the violin.

“Even before the violin got to some of these countries, they had bowed strings like the kemençe, like all those lyras from different parts of Greece, like the yaylı tanbur from Turkey and the kabak kemane from Turkey and more,” she said. “So I started collecting those and learning them.”

While she was in Turkey, she also noticed that traditional instruments were declining in use.

“When I first went to Turkey, people were walking around with black oud cases, kanun cases, tanbur cases — these are their traditional instruments. And then when I went a few years later, they were walking around with black electric guitar cases,” she said. “That handing down from generation to generation kind of stopped.”

Cohen believes in showing people traditional music, especially since so many of those traditions are endangered.

“It’s important because I feel that traditional music is the expression of the psyche of a culture. I want people to bypass the head and just get to the heart, so that maybe people will understand other people through their music.”