April 6, 2006
Hip Cynics for Export
In Israel, no one wants to be a friar -- a sucker, a patsy, a flunky, a tool.
It's the Israeli equivalent of the Chinese never wanting to lose face. And in Israel, this primary motivation explains much of the country's machismo -- and perhaps even its political situation.
Yet who can resist making fun of such puffed-up pride?
That's one of the appeals behind the music of Hadag Nachash (Snakefish), the best-selling Hebrew hip-hop band performing in Los Angeles on April 16 as part of the Let My People Sing weeklong festival.
"And we'll do our reserve duty/pay our taxes/and get stuck in traffic/(No one screws with us)/We are definitely, definitely, definitely not, we're definitely not friars," go the lyrics of the "Not Sucker" song.
This tune comes from Hadag's second of four albums, "To Move," which features the silhouette of a little boy gleefully urinating on the cover. (This tidbit is animated graphic on the group's tripped-out Web site.)
But the point of their rapping verses isn't to mock just for irony's sake. As "The Sucker Song" says,
"My friends say enough!/Stop being so heavy/and I'm not opposed to it/but the situation is absurd."
The situation in Israel is absurd: for youths who have to cut their fun short by going to the army, and for everyone who has to live in a constant state of war. As their lyric puts it:
"If it's a combat zone here/there's a minefield/ what does it matter if I pay by check, credit or cash?"
What does it matter, indeed. These are the nihilistic sentiments of a band from Jerusalem that formed in 1996 and released its first studio album "The Groove Machine" in 2000. The group claimed to be a "funk band with a rapper" and proved, according to the Israeli music site Moomba, that "there can be good Israeli rap."
But the music is more than rap; it's got bluesy rhythms that are even lounge-y at times.
This is the band that The Village Voice said "holds the record on songs we aren't embarrassed to play for the goyim."
You don't necessarily need to know Hebrew to enjoy the sound. But it would help if you were young -- or had a young musical taste. That's why the band was brought over for the otherwise more adult "Let My People Rock" concert.
"They are extremely popular with kids," said Genie Benson, one of the festival organizers and the head of the Keshet Chaim Dance Troupe. "I think it is important for American Jewish kids to understand that Israel has artists that they can connect with, and through music they can connect to kids in Israel."
It would be more than organizers bargained for if American Jewish kids also connect with Hadag Nachash's attitude: fed-up, irreverent, bordering on anarchist.
"What do we do, what do we do, that I'm always stoned like this?
I don't want/I don't want to reach the edge.
What do we do, what do we do that my generation is crooked like this
I think it's too late to come out of this."
But of course, to really get the band's groove, it would help if you spoke Hebrew -- and not only spoke Hebrew, but lived in Israel to understand all the political, religious and artistic references.
For example, you'd have to have seen the hundreds, if not thousands of contradictory bumper stickers and slogans plastered across the country over the years to understand "The Sticker Song." Consider all the times the word Shalom, or peace, occurs in the following lyrics:
"Dor Shalem Doresh Shalom ... Am Chazak Oseh Shalom ... Ayn Shalom Im Aravim ... Ayn Aravim, Ayn Piguim." -- A Whole Nation Wants Peace ... A Strong Nation Makes Peace ... No Peace with Arabs ... No Arabs, No Attacks.
"The Sticker Song," off their 2004 album "Local Material," was written by literary novelist David Grossman; such are the far-reaches of Hadag Nachash into the upper echelons of Israeli culture.
It's a culture that mixes lowbrow with highbrow, humor with meaning, Bible with rap. Perhaps at this pre-Passover concert they will sing their "Numbers" song, which is a play on one of the Passover hagaddah's closing songs, "Who Knows One?"
The song begins incrementally:
One is the number of the countries from Jordan to the sea
Two are the number of countries that here one day will be.
Three years and
Four months is the time I gave to the to IDF.
And up it goes:
Nine times I was close to a terrorist attack, at least for now.
Ten is the most Israeli answer to the question, "What's going on?"
"Ten" means great, perfect. When someone asks, "How's it going?" "Ten" is the answer an Israeli should give.
Eser. Great. Fabulous. Perfect.
For more information about Hadag Nachash, visit www.levantini.com/hadag/.
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