Celebrating HaDag Nahash – a retrospective

September 25, 2013 by

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I’ve been doing a lot of HaDag Nahash recently. As part of my work for Makom I’ve been translating the latest album at the band’s request, and preparing translation projections for their show at the opening of London’s new JW3 building. Lots of bilingualising and cutting and pasting.

Then a couple of nights ago I took my daughter to see a gig of theirs, at the outdoor amphitheater in Binyamina. Standing there, bopping and singing with my thirteen year-old as I had done some 11 years ago with my then-fourteen year old son at Limmud UK, I was struck by three thoughts.

HaDag Nahash have been going a long time, they keep getting better, and their work has helped me live and thrive in this strange and wonderful country.

HaDag Nahash have been going a long time, they keep getting better, and their work has helped me live and thrive in this strange and wonderful country.

They had already raised eyebrows at the turn of the millennium with one song about rapping in Hebrew and another against domestic violence, but their second album Lazuz – Move – began my love affair with the band’s music and lyrics.

It had been a tough few years in Israel, with the peace process collapsing into what felt like an endless series of terror attacks, and social cohesion at a low ebb. And then came Numbers, Not Frayers, and Gabi and Debbie, and Bella Bellissima. The first, an ingenious play on the numbers and statistics of life in Israel, mostly focusing – nearly a decade prior to the Social Justice Protests – on economic inequality, and the second a self-mocking cry of denial at the heart of mainstream Israel.

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I remember being thrilled and moved by the energy of the rhythm guitar, the irony, and the yearning of “It could have been major here. Could have been Harmony…” Gabi and Debbie was at once hilarious and serious, as HaDag Nahash inaugurated the concept of Zionist Hip Hop, which seemed to consist of a rapping deconstruction of Israel’s mythical heroes, and Bella Bellissima broke our hearts. The honesty of the narrator who recounts the way Bella Freud shielded a terrorist from being torn to pieces by a mob while he admits “to tell the truth/I don’t think I would have been capable of behaving like her” spoke for us all.

The music and lyrics of HaDag Nahash gave me what great art is supposed to offer

These were songs and experiences that marked the period for me. The music and lyrics of HaDag Nahash gave me what great art is supposed to offer: Not answers to life’s great challenges nor escape from them, but instead an inspiring way of living with them.

I remember one of the first times they performed The Sticker Song in public. It felt so raw, so powerful, so authentic. But it wasn’t until bassist Yaya Cohen told us the name of the song, that its painful familiarity made sense. We had all seen the song’s lyrics on the bumpers of cars throughout the country. David Grossman’s harvesting of these short and contrasting expressions of Israelis’ absolute certainty, coupled with the band’s staccato raging rap, suddenly – once again – defined an era. The song became the most listened-to song of 2004, and the shoe-string video clip was most-watched.

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Within a year nearly every car in Israel was stripped of its stickers. Some say this was because the complexities of post-Gaza disengagement Israel were too much to summarize on a bumper sticker, but I like to believe that it was because of the song. The mirror of a furious schizophrenic society shouting abuse from the back of its cars that HaDag Nahash held up to us was too much to live with.

And the band marched on. Leaving their anti-politicians rant Suits and the ultimate celebration of critical loyalty Only Here in their wake, they moved on to Here I Come. It became another anthem. With spooky electronics and reverb, the song tells the tale of an Israeli who moves from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and back. And back again. Beyond celebrating the rivalry between the holy city and the trendy city, the song taps into deep tensions in the Israeli psyche: are we ancient or modern? Are we local and communal, or are we cosmopolitan and international? Deep, or superficial? The song can’t decide. And nor can Israel.

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By 2010 I was getting bored of Israel. It felt like all the headlines were repeating themselves, and not in a nice way. A war every couple of years, ever-increasing gaps between rich and poor, a summer of domestic violence and murders, a growing discontent with nowhere to channel it.

The music scene wasn’t helping. It had been moving away from the reflective role of the prophet, and more to the entertaining escapist priesthood of Eyal Golan and other kings of Middle Eastern-style music. Party song after party song with lyrics that could have been written for proles by Orwell’s music machine of 1984, full of heavens stars and a broken heart. Then HaDag Nachash shot out their complaint, explanation, excuse, and solution all in one track: Consolation Song.

Rather than siding with the (mostly) racist critique of Middle Eastern music in general, they brought out the darbukas and invited Yisrael Kesar – guitarist for the legendary Mizrachi singer Zohar Argov – to guest on their song about songs about nothing:

Sing that it’ll be fine
Sing so as not to starve
Sing so as not to see there’s nothing to sing about
Sing another Consolation Song

Never ones to complain without empathizing, the band admits how difficult it is to face Israel’s issues:

Could sit all day and grind away at it
Could sit all night long and chew over it and gulp it down
But why should I sink
And get hit by depression?
Best not
Because there’s no solution to it.

 

Both musically and lyrically Consolation Song is at another level. After showing they can play hip hop, funk, Motown, dub, and electric with the best of them (even the Adam Chandler film “Zohan” featured their music), the band showed that even a potent mizrachi riff was not beyond them. And lyrically the final verse is an alliterative and rhythmic masterpiece:

Take the lid off pans
Take the morals out of ministers
Take the messages out of songs
   Mesirim michsim misirim
   Mesirim musar misarim
   Mesirim mesarim mishirim
         מסירים מכסים מסירים
         מסירים מוסר משרים
         מסירים מסרים משירים

 

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 “Most of the great musicians you can name created their best work before they reached their thirties”

Some time ago I found myself sitting with a leading Israeli music publisher and manager. He explained to me how one should always invest in youngsters. “Most of the great musicians you can name created their best work before they reached their thirties. After that, it’s downhill from there. Beatles, Rolling Stones, Tracy Chapman, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen – they mostly spend the rest of their lives living off the successes of their initial years.”

So I am left thinking about this rule of thumb after having completed translating the lyrics to the latest album of Hadag Nahash, Time to Wake Up. Hadag Nahash are no spring chickens. They have been working in the Israeli music scene for over 15 years. This is now their sixth album of new material. The key lyricist Shaanan Street is over thirty, is married with kids, and even sports more than a few grey hairs. And yet Time to Wake Up is their most accomplished, most sophisticated, most powerful album to date. It is a musical, lyrical, social, and commercial success. They are, it would seem, the mature fine wine to provide the publisher’s exception to his rule.

The album is both a retrospective and a huge step forward. In two barnstorming songs, Psyched, and Chorus, the band steps back and looks at their career so far. Psyched (Mabsut) celebrates the opportunity to “love what I do, do what I love”, namely standing with microphone in hand in front of an adoring crowd in order to “spit out the anxiety, rhyme the pain”. The Dag Nahash boys do not take their calling lightly (“It’s the privilege of this profession to react to what’s around”).

Chorus is a modest memoir of Guy Mar, as he charts his path from a music-mad DJ in the late nineties to key member of one of Israel’s greatest bands. Often overwhelmed, “Hard for me to believe I’m sitting there”, never complacent “hours in the studio/Until we agree it’s good we don’t go to sleep”, and always grateful, “It’s all thanks to you, we didn’t do it alone” the song never forgets the music. The mysterious power of a good chorus continues to be the band’s holy grail.

Somehow they have managed to create not just choruses but anthems for a generation.

Somehow they have managed, with remarkable consistency, to create not just choruses but anthems for a generation. Their latest is Time to Wake Up. It calls on us to take a stand against a corrupt form of government that has studiously ignored all that the Social Justice Protests of 2011 demanded. On the same day that the Bank of Israel came out with the astonishing statistic that despite the protests and the elections, Israel’s domestic budget has not changed in over a decade, so Time to Wake Up hit the airwaves, the social media, and the news.

It became the title for the next Social Justice demonstration (the organizers knew a good plug when they heard one: “To the folks of the Protests/We give praise/For they aim to lighten the load, to fix the wrong”), the theme song for a pioneering documentary on discrimination against mizrachim, and the driving beat for one of the scariest video clips I’ve seen for some time.

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Though the song declares at the outset: “I don’t believe in weapons, I believe in poetry”, the song cannot be understood as anything other than a call to arms. A packed amphitheatre in Binyamina last week chanted word-for-word with arms upraised:

It’s time to wake up
The house is falling apart
Let’s come out of our holes together
Enough of hiding
Raise your hands
And open your mouth
Against all of us there’s no way
They’ll hold on for long

I tend to think that they’ll hold on just fine, nor am I convinced we’re all rushing out of our holes so quickly, but I don’t believe that HaDag Nahash will be giving up so soon either. They’ve been singing about tolerance understanding and non-violence throughout one of Israel’s most intolerance and violent decades, but it hasn’t stopped them continuing to up the quality and the passion.

One of the most moving and personal protest songs I have heard

In Touch, Shaanan Streett likens himself to a worm patiently gnawing its way through the foundations of a corrupt society, seeing through subterfuge and taking refuge in the love of his wife and family. It is one of the most moving and personal protest songs I have heard. It lists the ways that society insinuates itself into our lives but “that tiny moment when you touch me/They won’t control, won’t control.” Both gentle yet insistent, the worms will overcome:

Very difficult for me to get caught by your elbow again
And even harder to elbow back but I’ll not stay silent
I always remember and there’s no chance I’ll break down
Among the clods of earth deep, deep in the ground
There are worms like me gorging to the full…

 

HaDag Nahash tends to avoid despair and the maudlin. Even if the message is of defeat, the beat is up. Yet I believe that in Everything Will Work Out they have created this generation’s Yihiye Tov. David Broza’s optimistic anthem following peace with Egypt has been replaced with a much more funky, more socio-economic, and more sing-along zen-like message:

I know it will all work out
There’ve been tough times
In the end it all passes
Whatever comes we’ll get over it
We’ll land on our feet like a panther

 

Though widely regarded as a bunch of lefties, they manage to avoid the holier-than-thou tone of too many on the left in Israel, and they maintain a humility and a sense of the street. Though individuals in the band take individual stands, the music itself is more values-driven than party-political. In their distrust of politicians, HaDag Nahash are a band of the people.

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Their sense of the moderation is nowhere more beautifully illustrated than in their latest hit Friday. It is a celebration of a mainstream Shabbat in Israel. It does not talk of angels or redemption, nor does it bemoan religious coercion or a lack of public transport. It sings to the lived experience of most Israelis leading up to their one day off: Eating with the family, chilling out, and resting after a crazy week. It is an easy, friendly song of collective celebration:

Gradually fill up with a smile
That across the city across the country
We’re shifting down a gear.
The whole week’s fine but only partly
And then Friday comes and my part is goodly…

Chorus: Friday’s here
And it made it just in time
Been so looking forward
To something calming and if it’s here then it’s a sign
That another week’s gone by and quiet’s arrived

 

 

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I could go on about this album. Indeed in a later post we’ll be featuring the translated lyrics to all its songs, but for the meantime I’ll just raise a glass to the band that continues to inspire, entertain, and give hope for a sane creative and humane Israel.

 

HaDag Nahash will be headlining at the opening of JW3 in London UK on Sunday 29th September. Hats off to JW3 for ensuring that Makom-supplied translation slides will be projected throughout the gig…

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