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Translating musical styles

Matthue Roth
January 29, 2009

Hadara Levin-Areddy is a one-woman cultural steamroller. She’s a secular Jew living in Jerusalem, a pianist who plays rock music, a determined iconoclast who’s at once playful and dark-humored—think early Bruce Springsteen meets early Alanis Morrisette. She’s carved out a niche for her own art-pop music in Israeli radio that’s not exactly Top 40, but still holds down a demographic of her own, roughly equivalent to that of NPR listeners. Hadara’s seventh album, K’ilu Ain Machar (“Like There’s No Tomorrow“), finds her branching out both musically and lyrically, abandoning pop songs for hip hop.

In the States, we call this type of genre-switching “selling out.” In Israel, a tiny country with a remarkably experimental arts scene (check out Tel Aviv’s avant-garde theater, or Jerusalem’s free jazz salons), it’s acceptable to switch genres, even personalities. Hadara sings about being in love with the fervor of Celine Dion and sings the praises of one-night stands like the Strokes would, but she’s part of a clique of Israeli artist-intellectuals that, well, is the farthest thing in the world from Celine Dion. With her new hip-hop project, Hadara (who is known in Israel by only her first name) grows ever harder to label, but the music itself feels like a natural extension of her musical personality—less like an Italian restaurant that sells sushi, and more like a chef who’s discovered a great-tasting new spice.

K’ilu is Hadara’s first record to feature all Hebrew lyrics. In English, her voice is silky smooth, an Israeli Diana Krall with a penchant for the occasional unhinged hard-rock breakdown. In Hebrew, the songs seem to represent an alternate reality version of her career, a glorious question mark of what might have been, setting verse after verse of staccato lyrics to hip-hop beats and real piano tracks that are spliced between programmed drums.

Harap Ha’acharon” (“The Last Rap”), alternates between a by-the-numbers R&B chorus and sly, skittish verses. It’s smart and subtle, playing more to the sensibilities of clever hip hop than showy, fast-as-you-can rhyming (think late Eminem as opposed to early Eminem), sleek and smartly produced.

The fourth song, “Ra’iti Melachim” (“I Saw Angels”), provides a momentary break in structure: a delicate piano ballad where the drums are replaced by a Hammond organ and acoustic guitar.

It soon fades into the next track, introduced by a quick scratch of a turntable, and Hadara is back into her strict meter and husky swagger. “Buy me a tequila and the words of tzaddikim,” she sings wryly. The music is a heavy groove, reminiscent of Digable Planets or A Tribe Called Quest, until the breakdown whips the song into a wild, runaway frenzy. It eventually reverts back to the groove, but with a spent feeling, as if the listeners and the musicians just experienced a mutual orgasm.

The most unexpected track on the album is also the shortest—it’s called “Dead End Road,” and lasts barely a minute. Wah-wah guitar and high-hat cymbals set it up with a breathless Quentin Tarantino tension, and Hadara’s vocals are almost like a whispered beatbox—felt more than heard, like a brush against the microphone.

Listen to “Words Words Words” by Hadara Levin-Areddy

Listen to “One Last Rap” by Hadara Levin-Areddy

Fools for April, the not-overtly-Jewish side project of two overtly-Jewish artists (Dov Rosenblatt, singer and guitarist for Blue Fringe; and C Lanzbom of Soulfarm) were featured on MTV’s The City. You can watch the episode below—or skip the melodrama and just grab the song from their site.

There’s a secret language to punk music. When it comes to speaking that language, very little middle ground exists—you’re either fluent, or you don’t understand a word. Can Can, a band from small towns in the Bible Belt (they currently live in Atlanta), are naturals at it.

All Hell, Can Can’s big-sounding, full-throttle debut record, is the first genuine punk record I’ve heard in a while—it is a love letter to what came before, but it also stands on its own as a valid means of rocking out.

“Locked In” begins with lead vocalist Patrick A. whispering secretively into a fuzzed-out, lo-fi microphone, then explodes in a trilling guitar set to a bombastic drumbeat. The title song has a warm, singable chorus—sung in harmony by guitarist Mary Frances Collins and drummer Josh Lamar—that wouldn’t be out of place on my mom’s easy-listening station, except that their affable voices are singing the words “all hell breaks loose” and Patrick squeals ferally over it.

His vocal chords take a beating on “Boreska Mines,” which retells the story of Jacob’s Ladder, but he never sounds anything less than fully charged. He is snide and sincere, like a postmodern Dean Martin, and always in control, deceptively sloppy in his punk crooning, but always ready to stop on a beat when the song calls for it.

Patrick, the only Jew in the band, studies Torah daily and ostentatiously flaunts his Judaism in interviews and onstage. It doesn’t come out as much in the lyrics—not overtly—although lines like “I’ve got a hand on the Bible/you’ve got your hands on my mouth” speak to the experience of being religious and existing outside the box.

Listen to “Betrayer/Deceiver” by Can Can

Winter is always cold, but this winter has been more severe than most. “In Chicago alone,” writes singer/producer/guitarist Alan Jay Sufrin, “20,000 homeless people sleep on the street every night.” To combat it, his band Stereo Sinai (they bill themselves as “Biblegum Pop”) just released the song “Eleven Below.” It’s a hell of a good love song, in that old country style of Johnny Cash/June Carter duets, and all the profits will go to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Listen free—or download it for 99 cents—at their site.

Matthue Roth is a performance poet and author of the novel Losers. He is an associate editor at