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A conversation with Shaanan Street, Hadag Nachash MC and frontman

by simone October 05 2008

 shaanan going solo

Shaanan Street, lead singer of hip-hop groove collective Hadag Nachash, which recently won international acclaim after scoring big with the Zohan soundtrack, is a major player in the Jerusalem cultural scene. As the band's last Jerusalem hold-out, Shaanan is making the holy city a little hipper, one venue at a time. As the band prepares for its November tour of the US, Jerusalemite caught up with Shaanan and spoke with him about his various initiatives. 

How did you get involved at Beit Avi Chai? Has it been hard to maintain Chet7's alternative arts credibility? Beit Avi Chai called me and asked if I wanted to be the artistic director of their Chet7 Saturday night series, and I said yes. I never tried to make the series alternative or mainstream. Basically, I just wanted to put on music that I like. Some of my choices were vetoed, but basically it's very important to Beit Avi Chai that I approve all of the musicians included in the series.

What's your role at the Reznik pub? What are your goals over there? I'm a partner there. Reznik is a student pub on Mt. Scopus with live music. We're trying to establish some campus life. Jerusalem doesn't really have any student bars, and with Reznik we're trying to establish that type of vibe. It's actually closed right now because the university is on vacation, but we'll be opening up again in November.

With your solo career, Hadag Nachash's recording and touring schedules in Israel and abroad, and your various nightlife initiatives, is it hard to keep all of your hats in order? How do you balance it all? I have to add something to your list there: I also have to balance my family. I have a wife and two sons. And the truth is, I don't know how I balance it all. It’s a daily struggle. In terms of work, Hadag Nachash takes priority and everything else, the bars and the solo projects come after that. I think all parents have to struggle with balancing work and family issues, so in terms of that, my life's not too different.

With all your various projects, it sometimes seems that your career's successes has instilled in you a sense of responsibility – that you're trying to give something back to the alternative arts and nightlife-starved Jerusalemites. Is that the case? Not really. I'm trying to do my work in a responsible manner, but I don’t do it out of a sense of responsibility. When I am involved in projects, I try to make them projects that I would like and I would appreciate. So there is a sense of responsibility in my work, but I don't think to myself, "Oh the most responsible thing I can do right now is open a bar."

Back in the day, you weHadag Nachash oct 1.jpgre a bartender at Diwan, one of Jerusalem's only bars where Jews and Arabs mixed. Are there any especially funny or wild memories from those days that you can share with our readers? What are your favorite nightlife spots in town nowadays? Diwan is still one of my favorite nightlife spots in all of Israel. It's changed names and owners twice since I worked there. Now it's called Sira but it's still at the same address. It still has the same vibe, but it's gotten a little nicer. They've turned the street into a midrachov (pedestrian walkway), so now you can sit outside as well. It's still a very avant garde music scene. I don't always like the music artistically, but I like that I can still be surprised when I go there.

And of course I am very into the whole Jewish-Arab thing. I don't know if this counts as a wild memory, but one of the things that most sticks out in my mind was when I was working there in the middle of a wave of terrible terrorist attacks, it must have been 2002 I guess, one year when there were just dozens of attacks. I used to work the afternoon shift there and one Saturday afternoon it was just me and two other guys in the bar and suddenly this man walks in. We've never seen him before. He doesn't say anything, he just motions to the beer tap, so I poured him a beer. He looks nervous, so I'm getting nervous, and he still hasn't said anything, which is making me even more nervous. Eventually, one of our clients goes over to speak to him. Turns out he was a Turkish construction worker, but in a city plagued by terrorist attacks, even the simplest Jewish-Arab interactions can become strained.

One time, I had a bunch of Arabs in the bar and there was a terror attack in Jerusalem, near French Hill, and I actually hard them debating whether they should go home or stay in the bar because they were afraid of Jewish mobs searching out Arabs for revenge. They wound up staying. I told them they should stay. These stories sound decadent but they were every day life for many people not so long ago. In Sira they still have two photos of my friend Ben [Blutstein, who was killed in a terrorist bombing at Hebrew University in July 2002] atop the DJ stand, and they still use his turntables which were donated by his parents to the bar. The photos of him over the bar were taken at my wedding.

Your song "Hineh Ani Ba" seems to be about the tension between being drawn both to Jerusalem and to Tel Aviv, but in one verse, you list the humus and the Kotel as the main reasons to be here. Why do you stay? I don't know. It's tough to answer that one. I used to think it’s the only place I could live, but I don’t think that anymore. Now I think there are some other places where I would feel just as at home. This year, I have two children already enrolled in schools here and it’s a pain in the ass to move in the middle of the school year, but next year we'll see. I think it's important for everybody to live exactly where they feel like living.

How did being so prominently featured on the Zohan soundtrack change your career, if at all? I think we really don't know yet. It was definitely a fun experience. We all liked the movie. The whole band went together to the premiere in Tel Aviv and it was a big thrill. We've seen more entries on our website and our numbers have gone up on iTunes, but we don't really know yet. We still haven't taken over the US. You need to give us a year or two for that.

Being a specifically Jerusalemite act seems to be a major component to Hadag Nachash's identity. In what ways would you say that this expresses itself? Jerusalmites have a slightly different take on current affairs and on "Israeliness" in general. Because Jerusalem is a more diverse city and a more problematic city, because it's more heterogeneous, it's harder to get along, but once you do decide to get involved,the band oct 1.jpg you're involved with something real. Coexistence [a major Hadag Nachash theme] is real here because it manages to transcend all of the hurdles. In general, Jerusalemites are more interested in content and less interested in trendiness. In Tel Aviv it seems that people are more into fashion and trends and less into content, although of course there are exceptions to this rule in both places.

What was hip hop in Jerusalem like when you were a kid? How did you get turned on to it? When I was a kid there was no hip hop in Jerusalem. There was no hip hop in Israel, there was almost no hip hop at all. I got turned on to it when I was in the US on the West Coast after the army. When I finished my army service, I traveled in the Far East and Australia and the United States and when I was on the west coast I got turned on to hip hop. I liked the flavor of the lyrics, I thought they were very down-to-earth, and I thought this was a medium that would be very interesting in Hebrew. There was only one Israeli hip hop band at the time, Shabak Samech, but by now the field has grown and there are dozens of hip hop artists here.

Jerusalemites are known for being right-wing politically, and Tel Avivniks left-wing. Yet when it comes to rappers, the opposite is true – we've got you guys and Segol 59, while they have Subliminal. How do you account for this? Is it just rebellion against the artists' surroundings, or is there more to it? That's a good question. I've never really thought about it before. It could be that it's just an artists' rebellion, but maybe you have more of an urge to speak your opinion if you are surrounded by people who think differently. If you are the majority there is no reason to speak out.

Photo of Shaanan flying solo courtesy of Mr. Street himself. Photos of the band courtesy of Hadag Nachash.

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