By Maxwell Williams / KCET / January 8, 2016 –
When Alejandro “Ale” Cohen was 13 years old in Buenos Aires, he never expected to pursue a career in music. The current director of Los Angeles’s premiere online radio station, Dublab, says he thought going into music was a “ridiculous” endeavor, a joke in his mind. MTV had just reached Argentina, and the videos of the late-’80s seemed cool and distant. As his bar mitzvah approached, he realized the Jewish rite of passage could be more valuable than a table full of gifts from his aunts and uncles.
“I was excited about the idea of getting a double-deck tape recorder [as a bar mitzvah gift],” he says with a laugh on a phone interview from the Dublab office. “But I remember having a genuine interest, too, in exploring [my Jewish] side. I remember going to a very traditional temple — the one where my parents got married — and having to memorize the songs. That was my first time learning how to sing. In learning these songs and having to sing them live, I realized, ‘Oh I can do this. This is something I like.’ It introduced me to performance. Going into music wasn’t a joke anymore — my bar mitzvah being a clear moment of tipping to that side.”
Cohen traveled to the Los Angeles eight years later, in 1996 at the age of 21, and soon he was embedded in the tight-knit L.A. music circle. Though he originally came just to visit with no real motivation to move to L.A., Cohen’s trip kept getting extended. In 1999, he was recruited to DJ at Dublab, the newly formed non-profit Internet radio station. “Honestly, I didn’t own a computer at that time, so I was puzzled on what this whole thing was about,” Cohen says. “It felt groundbreaking. I said, ‘Wow, this is a great idea. I didn’t know you could broadcast online.’ Back then, people were using [the Internet] mostly for emails. I would sign in on my friend’s computer and check my email once in a while and that’s all. So [Dublab] had that spirit of the Wild West, because nothing was defined yet, so you could make your own rules.”
From those scruffy early days, Dublab has since morphed into a more holistic entity — they DJ events throughout L.A., put on exhibitions, produce events, and even put out physical releases — and Cohen himself has stuck around, gliding up the ladder to general manager, and finally, in August, as the director of Dublab. During his time there, he’s become known for his impeccable selections of modern music, but more than that, an authority on obscure Argentinean musical styles. He’s curated mixes of Argentine post-punk, progressive-folkloric music, and of the shoegaze scene of the late-80s and early-90s in Buenos Aires. But, he admits, he discovered a respect for these styles only after he moved to L.A.“All of that music, I wasn’t really into it [when I was] living there,” he says. “I liked some of the songs, but I never saw eye-to-eye with the Argentine approach to music. I felt it was always waiting for the U.S. or Europe to give the green light on things. I just refused to connect with it when I was there. I was like, ‘I love Jesus and Mary Chain; I love Beatles. I don’t want to hear the Argentine version of any of that.’ I discovered it here as a foreigner. I was living here, going back home, and visiting family, so I started buying records. I think having the distance allowed me to hear it a little bit more objectively. There are definitely masterpieces, and there are definitely things that are just bad versions of American or European stuff. My dad wasn’t a music guy, but he was out there, and he knew some of these musicians, because it’s just not that big [a scene], and he was like, ‘Yeah, we liked them. We always thought it was a funny little thing. We liked the Beatles; this was the local version of them. We never took it too seriously.'”
Though he hasn’t come across much in his career that melds his Jewish upbringing with his musical talents, Cohen — whose father worked in the garment industry in Buenos Aires — did find himself DJing at a two-day arts retreat put on by a Jewish organization two years ago. He found out quickly that his DJ style doesn’t translate to every setting. “I played some out-there dance-y stuff that [the audience] didn’t understand,” he says, laughing. “And then the other DJ came in, and he killed it completely, because he was more of a party DJ.”Here in L.A., Cohen’s outré dance styles play a bit better. Not only that, but his contributions to the L.A. scene go way beyond DJing. A talented singer and producer in his own right, Cohen has scored film music for PBS documentaries, and he’s been a member of two canon Los Angeles music groups, Languis and more recently Pharoahs, whose 2013 debut album, “Replicant Moods,” was called an “essential local dance record to prepare you for the start of summer” by L.A. Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss. It’s incredibly warm dance music, the kind of thing that transforms the bodies on a dancefloor into ebbing and rolling waves in the middle of a languid ocean. But Cohen snickers when the topic of the band’s name is broached. He admits it’s a bit of a loaded moniker.
“I thought about it later on, the name,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s funny.’ I don’t know. It’s just fun. It’s really pretty ironic. I did think about it. None of the other guys are Jewish, so to them, it has no meaning. The group is Pharaohs, and one of them has the last name Cohen.”