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Israeli Hip-Hop Takes U.S.

Hadag Nahash overcome tragedy and captivate America

October 28, 2004 12:00 AM ET
At their recent Berkeley performance, the fifth stop on their American tour, Israel's chart-topping hip-hoppers Hadag Nahash found themselves performing to a sold-out crowd of 750, with a huge crowd left outside University of California's Wheeler Auditorium, disappointed.

"It was surprising," says Yaya Cohen Harounoff, bass player for the seven-member band. "It's like that a lot of the time in Israel; but here they didn't even know the language, yet they had such great energy!"

Hadag Nahash cranked out one Israeli hit after another, jumping around the stage and leaping in the air. Audience members climbed onto each other's shoulders, danced in the aisles, and shouted along with the band's call-and-response. Many attendees seemed to have come out of curiosity -- despite having no religious, ethnic or national connection to a hip-hop band from Israel.

"Hadag Nahash is similar to the Roots in America," noted Yarden Schneider, events coordinator of the Israel Center in San Francisco, which initiated the band's tour across the United States. "Both sing socially conscious, positive hip-hop."

Not all their songs, however, conveyed upbeat messages. In "Misparim (Numbers)," lead rapper Sha'anan Streett belts out the Hebrew lyrics, "Nine is the number of times I was too close to a terrorist attack," reflecting the common experience of the band members and many of their compatriots.

"I was at a cafe on the promenade in downtown Jerusalem," Street tells Rolling Stone, recalling one of his more frightening narrow escapes. "The first boom came, and my beer flew off the table as everyone ran into the cafe. Then there was the silence that always follows an attack. At that point, I started yelling to everyone, 'Don't leave the cafe yet!' Attacks usually come two or three at a time: suicide bombers wait for police to arrive on the site of the first attack, then they set off another explosion.

"Sure enough, there was another. When it was all over, I walked around, amidst all the mess, handing out water to survivors. I can't do the bloody stuff; it's too traumatizing for me. But I have a mental picture of a good friend of mine putting someone's brain back in his head, as another friend of mine, a medic, tried to reattach people's arms and legs. For me, these are the heroes of modern-day Israel: the ones who can do good things in the middle of all this shit."

In early October, just one week before Hadag Nahash launched their American tour, drummer Moshe Asaraf invited two friends to the band's sold-out Tel Aviv concert. Following the performance, the two young women drove south to the Sinai, joining thousands of Israelis on vacation for the Jewish holiday of Sukkoth. A triple suicide bombing shattered the peace there shortly after the two friends' arrival. Asaraf found himself visiting one in the hospital and attending the other's funeral, days before boarding a plane to the U.S.

"Life goes on, as hard as that is to say," he remarks. "This is the reality of how things are here. I don't actually know how I keep on going. There is just no chance to stop and think about things. You have to get up and continue forward."

In an effort to help Israelis heal from the trauma of terrorist attacks, Hadag Nahash created an Israeli hip-hop compilation album in memory of DJ Benny the B, which they sold at U.S. concert venues. Originally from small-town Pennsylvania, Benny the B helped produce the group's second album and was a leading hip-hop DJ in Israel -- until he was killed two years ago in the Hebrew University suicide bombing. Proceeds from Remember Ben CD sales go to a soup kitchen collectively run by devout and secular Israelis, on a mission to promote religious tolerance.

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