How do you translate “I lit up from Reno, I was trailed by 20 hounds” into Hebrew? Khen Rotem spent the better part of two years deciphering the Americana roots of The Grateful Dead’s music, like the lyrics to “Friend of the Devil,” and translating it into Hebrew.
The result is the first album featuring Hebrew versions of some of the Dead’s most beloved tunes. “Bertha” becomes “Netta,” “Sugaree” transforms into “Matokati” and “Tennessee Jed” is transported to “Kfar Hanassi.”
The Promised Land – The Grateful Dead/Jerry Garcia Project is a collaboration between Rotem – better known as Israeli hip hop pioneer Sagol 59 – and Ami Yares, an American folk and blues artist who spent many years living in Jaffa and befriended Rotem one night at the Dancing Camel Pub in Tel Aviv.
For Rotem, the attraction to the Dead – who broke up in 1995 after the death of guitarist Jerry Garcia – wasn’t love at first sight.
“I only started getting into their music over the past five years or so, after I met my girlfriend who is from San Francisco and has been to about 200 Dead shows,” he said. “Until then I knew them superficially, a few songs here and there, like most Israelis. But gradually, I started to dig into their big musical world, and found something magical.”
Rotem, who had translated songs by artists like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits into Hebrew, decided about two years ago to do something that has never been done before – adapt the Dead’s music into Hebrew for a full album. He mentioned the idea to Yares, who jumped at the chance to perform the Dead’s music in Hebrew.
“It began to roll on from there. All of the musicians who played on the album did so because they love the Dead. It took on a karma of its own,” said Rotem. “The hard part was choosing which songs to translate – some of their material is too abstract and free flowing, so I chose the songs that were more structured and based in the standard ballad or rock format.”
Another challenge was transforming the quintessentially American hippie poetry of lyricist Robert Hunter into Hebrew, but here Rotem came up with a novel approach.
“I decided early on two rules – to keep the phonetics of the lyrics intact as much as possible – so ‘friend of the devil’ becomes ‘haver shel hasatan.’ And secondly, I tried to ‘Israelize’ the lyrics. I didn’t want to sing about Reno and Wichita and Tennessee, but Ramle and the Carmel. It didn’t seem right for me to sing about these American places in Hebrew. I think that’s part of the charm of the whole project.”
That’s how Tennessee in the bouncy “Tennessee Jed” became “Kfar Hanassi” in the Hebrew version; nothing if not charming and a switch that will bring a smile to any Hebrew-speaking Deadheads.
For Rotem, part of the journey was delving deep into the Dead’s music to extract the thread that makes it relevant for Hebrew listeners.
“When you study their songs and their lyrics, you see that there’s a lot of poetry there, especially in the songs by Garcia and Hunter. It’s very Americana, but it’s also universal – focusing on life, people, redemption and vice. There’s a lot of room for interpretation.”
The project was authorized by the Dead’s publishing company and completed just in time to celebrate their 50th anniversary.
Unbeknownst to Rotem when he started working on the album, the surviving members of the Dead were gearing up for the 50th by planning two final reunion shows, set to take place this July in Chicago (Since then, two earlier shows have been added in California).
“I think it was the day we finished mixing the last track that they announced the Chicago shows,” said Rotem, adding that the initial response to the album, which was released last Friday on International Record Store Day, has been enthusiastic.
“Since we loaded it onto Bandcamp, people are listening, buying and writing to us from all over the world. I knew it was something special when I started doing it, but I didn’t realize what this music can do to people on an emotional level.”
Musically, the album isn’t as adventurous as the drastic reworking of the lyrics, with the arrangements generally sticking to the Dead’s original version. But Rotem, Yares and their collaborators succeed in capturing the warm, folksy side of the band with a sound that wouldn’t sound out of place around a kibbutz bonfire.
Rotem is planning to organize an official record release show in the near future, perhaps timed to the Dead’s summer shows. The shows are being simulcast in theaters, but so far no Israeli venue has been arranged. In the meantime, the album will satiate local Dead fans, marking another milestone on the band’s golden road.
And what does Rotem’s hardcore Deadhead girlfriend think of her favorite music emerging in the ancient Hebrew language? “She approves,” laughed Rotem. “Deadheads are very hard to please, they’re picky and always analyzing everything.
So I knew that if it passed through her, then I had the hechsher.”To download The Promised Land, go to https://thepromisedland1.bandcamp.com/.