“Thanks for coming to celebrate Israeli Independence day with us,” said Sha’anan Streett, frontman for Hadag Nachash, the Israeli hip hop funk band. “We’ve always known what it is like to be the few against the many,” he continued, before launching into ‘Mah Na’aseh’, the band’s irreverent ode to being high. The transition was unexpected, to say the least. The song, which details the narrator’s experiences with pot, has a tight Rhythm and Blues groove with a Hip Hop sensibility that evokes groups like The Roots and Erykah Badu. But Hadag Nachash have a different element they bring to the table as well. The group brings all of the joy and angst, pain, conflict, and questions that represent much of Jewish Israeli society.
And they do it with aplomb, moving between modern Israeli and Arabic melodies and slang and ancient Jewish sources.
During the final moments of ‘Mah Na’asah’, as Hadag Nachash repeats the refrain, “tzarich latzet mi zeh,” (I have to get out of this, or I gotta get away from this), they sneak in a song from the Haggadah, the Passover liturgy, “be’tzeit Yisrael miMitzrayim, beit Ya’akov mei am loez,” (When Israel went out of Egypt, the House of Jacob from a people of a foreign language).
Hadag Nachash has mastered the balance of being danceable and serious at the same time, expressing so much complexity, while still grooving. In ‘Shirat HaSticker’, a song in which the political situation and disagreements in Israel are exposed through the expressions gracing the country’s many bumper stickers, the group pauses after the chorus with a sample from a young boy (probably at his Bar Mitzvah) singing the blessings for reading the Haftarah. Just to repeat, the group takes issues spanning from the Israeli Palestinian conflict, issues of religious freedom and secular society, and traditional Jewish blessings and wraps it all in a musical shell that still gets a crowd moving.
Their performance at City Winery this past week was in support of their new album, Zman Lehitorer (time to wake up), which once again manages to incorporate and synthesize sounds from around the world while taking up important issues. The album’s title track is a full on protest anthem mixed over a Dubstep-influenced beat. “This is the time to wake up, our home is decaying,” they sing, exhorting to raise our fist and come together to change the social realities. One could easily imagine this as a theme song of the social protests which recently occurred in Israel in which nearly a tenth of the country’s population took to the streets to demand more social justice. This latest album also brings far more Middle Eastern influences into Hadag Nachash’s repertoire. On songs like ‘Eilo ze haya’ and ‘Eneni Boged’, you can almost hear the melodies lifted right off the radio in Lebanon.
But it isn’t all serious. The album also features songs like ‘Pizmon’ (a pizmon is a Jewish song that praises god, but in modern Hebrew, it means 'chorus'), ‘Mabsut’, and ‘Hakol Yistader’, which is the summer feel-good anthem of the album, telling us that everything will work out, and in the end every passes.
It is an incredible feat to consistently crank out great music, so much the more so when the lyrical content is so rich and full of insider references to Israeli and Jewish history, thought culture, and conflicts. In fact, you could teach an entire Israeli history class using this group as the lens.
Do whatever you have to get your hands on this music, and to see Hadag Nachash live. You can watch video of their performance at Chicago's City Winery here