Perla Batalla with her mentor, Leonard Cohen. (Photo/Courtesy Perla Batalla)
Perla Batalla with her mentor, Leonard Cohen. (Photo/Courtesy Perla Batalla)

Leonard Cohen’s backup singer to pay tribute to mentor in S.F.

Leonard Cohen, the late bard of Montreal whose uplifting “Hallelujah” became a timeless global hit, “would himself say that his songs are prayers,” says Cantor Marsha Attie of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

“One of his most famous songs, ‘Who by Fire,’ is closely linked to the Unetaneh Tokef, a prayer for the High Holidays that speaks to the fragility of life and recognizes that the year ahead holds in store for us a variety of possible destinies,” she said, by way of example. “His song is lifted from that prayer.”

While she brings Cohen’s popular music into services on a regular basis, Attie will have a chance to sing a Cohen song or two on stage in a tribute concert to the singer-songwriter, along with Cantor Arik Luck and congregant Pamela Rose, a professional jazz and blues singer. Headlined by a longtime backup singer for Cohen and solo performer in her own right, Perla Batalla, “House of Cohen” is a traveling show that will be presented at Emanu-El on Sunday, March 31.

Batalla is an L.A.-born vocalist who toured with Cohen for some 25 years and launched her solo career with his encouragement. She has released seven albums, including her Grammy-nominated Leonard Cohen tribute album, “Bird on the Wire,” in 2007.

Born into a musical family — her father, from Mexico, was a mariachi singer and radio personality, and her Argentine mother ran a record store called Discoteca Batalla  — Batalla contributed to the band both her melodic voice and Latino cultural influences, which Cohen embraced. She considered him her friend and mentor.

Before he died in 2016 at the age of 82, she created, with his blessing, a touring show that would introduce Cohen to younger generations, including Latinos, as well as convey the singer she knew: a man who was not only a prophet of gloom, as per his popular image, but also full of humor and other qualities. Her show, which has already toured internationally, will be a blend of performance and storytelling, with anecdotes from their decades of collaboration.

Attie and Luck say they are excited to be able to perform a few numbers with Batalla, as will Rose, a veteran Bay Area vocalist and creator of the stage show “Wild Women of Song.”

And they are sure people in the audience will recognize the songs that already are included in many synagogue services.

“It will be a combination of concert and sing-along, and a celebration of his life and work,” said Luck. “We want people to sing, listen, do whatever they want to do.”

The concert is the third in a series of “Cantor’s Concerts” at the San Francisco congregation this year, each with a different musical focus. Cohen, Emanu-El’s cantors say, was a natural for them.

“Cohen has become part of the modern Jewish liturgy, in terms of what is being performed in synagogues and congregations,” Attie said. “He was very connected to Jewish text, with many of his songs lifted from the Torah or the Song of Songs and other sacred works.”

“As cantors, we can’t just look to our ancient prayers for comfort and inspiration,” Luck said. “If we can find a kesher — a connection — to our liturgical tradition with contemporary music, then I embrace it, if it works. That’s not hard to do with Leonard Cohen.”

Cohen has become part of the modern Jewish liturgy.

In the upcoming concert, Arik will sing “So Long, Marianne,” while Attie will perform “If It Be Your Will,” a song derived from the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac out of devotion to God.

“His song is actually a common rabbinic interpretation of it, which is that the story was actually an anti-war message, or against violence — right in line with some Jewish thought,” Attie said.

Born into a Jewish family in Montreal, Cohen became an avowed Buddhist later in life — without ever disavowing his Judaism. In 1994 he entered Mount Baldy Zen Center in Southern California, spending five years in seclusion there, where he was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk. (He famously emerged from his retreat to learn that his manager had embezzled funds he had entrusted to her. His response: to create more work and go on tour once again.)

“My guess is they [his Judaism and his Buddhism] lived side by side. I like to say he was our most famous JuBu,” Attie remarked. “It’s an easy bridge between the two faiths. One reason is because deep in Jewish thought we understand God as an unnamable presence — and that is a concept in Buddhism, as well.”

Luck remembers how his parents introduced him to Cohen’s music when he was a child, and how he rediscovered him in college.

“I found a lot of comfort in his brooding melodies, and listened to him very regularly,” Luck said. “Leonard Cohen has the ability to put you into a dark place, but it’s not scary. It’s a comforting place that we like to visit, though we can’t imagine what it would be like to be there permanently. It’s like we observe Yom Kippur — but not every day. He allows us to explore our darkness through his art.”

Perla Batalla in “House of Cohen.” 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday, March 31 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. $32 general, $18 for students.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.