Man in the street

The lead singer and lyricist for Hadag Nachash discusses the band's new album and continued protest against the flaws of Israeli society.

Hadag Nachash (from fatwire) 311 courtesy (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hadag Nachash (from fatwire) 311 courtesy
(photo credit: Courtesy)
From their groove-oriented hip hop music and provocative rapped lyrics about the woes and wonders of Israeli society to their ubiquitous emblem of a little boy urinating, Hadag Nachash has become a national institution.
When Adam Sandler wanted to evoke modern Israel in his spoof movie You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, it was strains of  the band’s music that accompanied the urban grittiness of Israeli and Palestinian expats on the streets on New York. And when the Foreign Ministry wants to send an Israeli artist abroad to best represent the musical and cultural diversity that the country has to offer, it’s not just Idan Raichel who’s on their shortlist.
But, while the 13 years since the band formed has seen them achieve more success than most Israeli bands ever see, singer and lyricist Shaanan Streett still feels unsatisfied on a certain level.
“If you ask me today, I feel like I’ve lost the battle to change society through our music. It’s not like I’ve seen any enormous changes in the past decade. Israel is dealing with the same issues with the same amount of success and failure,” Streett told The Jerusalem Post last week while nursing an ice coffee in his sister-in-law’s newly opened tiny Jerusalem café – Beit B’kahava.
“Today, I feel that the true role we play is not to bring change to society – it’s more to enable radio programmers to be able to say that there are bands that talk about change. It’s so much fun for them to say, ‘OK, we finally have something with meaning’”
While Streett may appear to be temporarily cynical, he’s also upbeat about Hadag Nachash’s newly released album, 6, their fifth studio album, but sixth overall if you count the band’s live album.
6 features all the elements that have made the band’s previous four studio albums such keepers – the sharp, socially conscious lyrics of Streett, and the still-fresh funk/hip hop/soul grooves of songs like “Ani Ma’min” (I Believe) and “War” which build on the band’s long-established tradition of combining eminently danceable rhythms with thought-provoking protest lyrics. But it also contains side trips ranging from ballads to Motown to ’70s-styled mizrahi guitars.
WHILE STREETT still provides sharp, often caustic observations about the flaws he perceives in Israeli society, he denies that he’s waving a flag for followers to line up behind.
“First and foremost, of course, we’re artists and musicians. I’m a singer, and my job is to write songs and sing them,” the 38-year-old Streett said. “A lot of them have nothing whatsoever to do with politics. Maybe someday I’m going to embarrass the person who thinks I’m his spokesman. I don’t want to be anyone’s spokesman.
“But sometimes our opinions do match what some people are thinking – sometimes it works. So we’ll take it one at a time.”
Asked if he would ever entertain the possibility of serving the public by entering politics, Streett  laughed.
“I get approached a lot by organizations, and they want me to perform or endorse a cause, and sometimes I do it and sometimes I don’t. But I would never enter politics. I told all my friends, ‘if I talk about going into politics, slap me on the face as hard as you can,’” he said.
Instead, Streett concentrates on music. Over last weekend, Hadag Nahash traveled to North America for a 12-show tour that will see the band perform on college campuses for mostly Jewish audiences and in clubs for a more diverse crowd. For Jewish organizations on campus, the band is an enticing draw, presenting the hip, bohemian side of Israeli life to impressionable students.
“The band is actually above or beyond politics,” said Lisa Kassow, the director of Zachs Hillel House at Trinity College in Connecticut, who booked the band to perform this week. “They speak to how people feel on a very emotional, visceral level in Israel. The music is so exciting, and if you’re lucky enough to understand the words, they’re so powerful and poignant and really highlight issues of civil rights. How many opportunities do we have to present such incredibly positive programming? These are engaging contemporary cultural ambassadors from Israel,” she told the Jewish Ledger.
According to Streett, the band’s popularity abroad is heartening and a testament to the power of their music, especially since much of the audience has no idea what the lyrics he’s singing actually mean.
“Our show is somewhat different when we perform abroad,” he said. “We tend to emphasize the groove more, and open the show more to solos. Sometimes I can just leave out a verse and have somebody take a solo instead, and it won’t take away from the performance. So we play with it a bit to make it a little more accessible to an English speaking audience. But now we have English tracks.”
Streett was referring to songs on 6 like “Little Man,” “Lights,” and “War,” which feature Hadag Nahash’s first foray into English lyrics, including “Yo! I come from the holiest place on earth and still I don’t believe in sh*t, sticking my music in you for whatever it’s worth, you can use it or refuse it whatever you see fit.” And this opening from “War”: “Ever since we were children Israelis taught just to hate Palestinian and I’m sure Palestinian were taught pretty much the same thing six decades so no wonder that I’m fed up of the way things are going.”
FOR STREETT, whose parents are American immigrants and who grew up hearing English, writing English lyrics was not a big challenge. And he even discovered there were some advantages to it.
“Sometimes when I meet people or students on tour, I’ll get into a conversation about the songs, and when I have these encounters in Hebrew, in  a way, I’m almost going through the motions already. I’ve been asked the same questions so many times. But when I do it in English, I feel it again,” he said.
“In a way, it’s the same with writing lyrics. If you write about the same topics, it can get tiring, but if you do it in English, it’s like you’re reliving it again and starting something new. It was fun and a nice change.”
It will likely also be appreciated by the band’s American audiences, which Streett estimates “consist of 80% American Jewish students, 10% Israelis in the area, and 10% everything else – usually the boyfriend or girlfriend of the Jews.”
Then, there are Palestinians who attend the shows, not to enjoy the music, but to disrupt, placing the Left-leaning Streett in the position of defending Israel.
“One time, we did a show in Austin for Israel’s 60th celebration and we had a Palestinian demonstration,” said Streett. “I addressed them from the stage in my pidgin Arabic. I told them ‘listen, it’s a difficult region we live in, but this is a music concert, and you’re welcome to join us.’ Some did and some didn’t, but I’m not afraid of a Palestinian demonstration. People have a right to demonstrate. I don’t see it as a threat. I want  to speak to them – even the ones who don’t think I should be here.
“We’ve already been warned that [this] week, we’re going to be playing right around Israel Apartheid Week on some campuses.”
STILL SWIRLING in a storm of controversy 13 years after they started, Streett explained that it’s been relatively easy to keep things fresh for the band, when the temptation may be to coast on past success.
“We stay true to ourselves, and trying not to be overly influenced by trends,” he said. “Israel and Jerusalem are places with a lot of things to say about them. And if you’re committed to telling the truth and telling it the way it is, the material doesn’t really end. There’s always more – there’s an abundance of issues to tackle.
“Musically, when I look at it in retrospect, it’s really pretty amazing to see the path we took. Because we were never, ever a classic hip-hop group, and we’re still not. We may have some tracks that are quite close to it, but we’ll introduce something so that it’s never going to be your ordinary hip hop, and 6  is our most diverse album in terms of music,” he added, referring to the album’s first singles, the gentle anti-war ballad “Od Ach Echad” (One More Brother) and “Shir Nehama,” with its raw guitar riff featuring mizrahi music legend Yehuda Kaisar.
“When we started futzing around with the song, we had a little bit of this mizrahi guitar line, and we thought, ‘that sound goes with Yehuda Kaisar’ – he’s the face behind that kind of guitar playing that emerged in the 1970s. He played with Zohar Argov and with all the fathers and mothers of mizrahi music,” said Streett.
“This is great music – I have those albums on vinyl. It’s nothing like the pop mizrahi music we get today, which is like, ‘I love you, I don’t love you.’ That’s also a genre, but I don’t find any comparison to the real mizrahi music, which is almost like Israeli blues – that’s how I would describe it.”
Kaisar will be one of the featured guests when Hadag Nahash returns from their North American jaunt to launch the official debut of 6 on March 25 at the Theater Club in Jaffa. Other guests at the show will be contributors to the album like Karolina and bassist/producer Yossi Fine.
From there, the band will tour the country in support of the album, undaunted by the slew of big-name international acts headed our way. Streett has a couple on his radar for his nights off.
“For me Pixies, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan – if he comes – would bethe ones I would go see,” he said, adding that he didn’t thinkaudiences would be choosing the ‘name’ artists over local talent.
“Ireally think there’s enough space for everyone. This country haschanged. People start going to live shows at a younger age and stopgoing at an older age. So, it’s all good. Bring on the music, noproblems!”