Long, strange trip now in Hebrew
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Long, strange trip now in Hebrew

Israeli rapper, Jersey rocker team up to translate Grateful Dead to Hebrew

Khen Rotem, left, and Ami Yares collaborate on the Grateful Dead tribute in Hebrew at Yares’ apartment in Jaffa. Mark Segal/Segal Studio
Khen Rotem, left, and Ami Yares collaborate on the Grateful Dead tribute in Hebrew at Yares’ apartment in Jaffa. Mark Segal/Segal Studio

When you listen to the record, it’s no surprise that the two friends who made it met in a bar.

“The Promised Land: The Grateful Dead / Jerry Garcia Hebrew Project” features 16 songs from the legendary band’s repertoire translated to Hebrew.

As the whole world knows by now, the Grateful Dead just played its final series of concerts in Chicago last weekend, marking both the end of its touring life and the 50th anniversary of its creation.

“The Promised Land” is not just translated, but relocated: The Grateful Dead songs set in the American South and West have been remapped to Israeli locations — Sderot, the Galilee, and Jerusalem replace Reno, Tennessee, and San Francisco. What hasn’t been changed is the outlaw side of a band whose members often were pigeonholed as hippies for their starring role in the Acid Tests and Summer of Love of the 1960s. If the Dead’s best known songs are cosmic, perhaps stoned contemplation (“Ripple,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Box of Rain”), “Promised Land” reaches a bit deeper into the set list for tales of bank robbers, thieves on the lam, prostitutes, and miscellaneous drunk ne’er-do-wells.

promised land cover

The record is a collaboration between Khen Rotem — who as Sagol 59 recorded Israel’s first hip hop album back in 2000 — and Ami Yares, a Cherry Hill-born musician who just recently returned to America after nine years in Israel. Mr. Rotem wrote the lyrics. Mr. Yares played lead guitar and led the band, which included drums and keyboard.

“Khen and I had crossed paths a number of times,” Mr. Yares said. “We met at a local bar.”

Mr. Rotem noted that Mr. Yares played a lot of country music and folk songs and Americana — the musical genres behind the Grateful Dead sound.

“I threw this thing at him,” Mr. Rotem said. “He immediately jumped on my proposal to do it together. It was a very fruitful collaboration. He provided the music and a lot of the ideas. We recorded at his flat in Jaffa. It’s a good partnership.”

Mr. Yares had been playing many of these songs — with their original English lyrics — for years. He first discovered the Grateful Dead as a budding guitar player in high school in Cherry Hill. “The people I looked up to were all Deadheads,” he said. But he never heard them play; he was only 15 when Jerry Garcia died. “I got to the Dead after things had all ended, unfortunately. The closest I came to hearing them was RatDog,” a band featuring the Grateful Dead’s rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Rob Wasserman.

“I like rockabilly and two step shuffle stuff,” Mr. Yares said. “I had been playing with a group, primarily bluegrass and Americana. We had our following in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv but were by no means successful. We were two guitars and a mandolin and a washboard.” That sound was the template for “The Promised Land.”

The result is a Hebrew-language record that highlights how little the twangs of American country music penetrated Israeli pop and rock over the decades — until now.

“Country and western is not that big here — all this roots Americana music,” Mr. Rotem said. “I have this theory that Israelis prefer British music. Israelis like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Dire Straits, Police, Cure, Radiohead. A lot of big name American bands are not that well known in Israel, like the Allman Brothers, Leonard Skynyrd.”

Mr. Rotem had known some of Grateful Dead’s well known songs like “Truckin’” and “Casey Jones” and “Throwing Stones” and “Touch of Grey.” But his relationship with the band changed “two years ago, when I moved in with my girlfriend, a certified Deadhead who grew up in San Francisco,” he said. “I got deeper into it. I started to dive deeper into the material.”

That was the beginning of the translation project.

“I went through nearly all of the songs,” he said. “Some are virtually untranslatable. I chose the songs that have more ballad or blues format, a more square format, that can be more easily translated. Songs that I like and that touched me on a certain level and that could be easily interpreted.”

He focused on the songs where Jerry Garcia wrote the melodies and Robert Hunter wrote the words. He got permission from the Dead’s publishing company to do the project.

Back in 2000, Mr. Rotem released Israel’s first solo hip hop album, “The Blue Period.” On this and his subsequent hip hop albums, he included an Israeli version of a classic hip hop track. He doesn’t see the move from hip hop to the Grateful Dead as a big leap.

“I was always playing the guitar and I like to sing the blues,” he said. “I like to play fresh and interesting stuff and not get stuck in one particular style. Even Snoop Dogg did some country music.

“I don’t like to limit myself as an artist. I want to go where the inspiration takes me. I’m always looking for new avenues and new challenges.”

One challenge the project posed was “diving into someone else’s world,” he continued.

“Usually rappers write their own stuff. Here you have to get on the same wavelength of the original people who wrote it 30, 40, or 50 years ago. I learned a lot from reading the lyrics over and over and toiling over the translations.

“One of the decisions I made very early was to try to preserve the phonetics of the songs, so the syllables and the way it sounds will be familiar, and to Israelize the lyrics. It was unnatural to sing in Hebrew about Wichita and Utah and Reno.”

These two goals came together in his translation of the song “Tennessee Jed.”

The original chorus: “Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be/Baby won’t you carry me back to Tennessee.”

The Hebrew version sings about Kfar Nasi, a kibbutz in the Galilee a mile from the Golan. “Kfar Nasi, Kfar Nasi, zah hamokom hachi tov bishveli / Baby bo’I kchi oti el Kfar HaNasi.”

And where the verses in English conclude along the lines of “You know you bound to wind up dead, If you don’t head back to Tennessee Jed.” Or “Got a letter this morning, baby all it read / You better head back to Tennessee Jed.” The Hebrew version has the character — similarly hapless, drunk, and breaking his spine — eyeing a return to the Galilee and the Golan.

“Shake shake Sugaree” becomes “Sheket sheket metukatee” — sheket meaning hush, but sounding like shake; metukatee meaning “my sweetie,” a translation both literal and phonetic.

Musically, “the goal was to put together something that caught a little of the Dead over the years,” Mr. Yares said. “Not copying; playing tribute, without reinventing the wheel. Being inspired by them to do our own improvisation of what they were doing.

“Things just came up in terms of the arrangements. The oud solo in I Know You Rider was — holy crap, I have an oud and I haven’t used it! Maybe next time it will have more regional influences.”

Next time?

“Hopefully there will be another album. Khen’s already working on more translations. “Ripple” is in the works, he said.

So is a winter tour of the United States, or at least the East Coast.

Mr. Yares is back in Philadelphia after years in Israel, where he was a freelance musician and teaching artist.

“I did a lot of work for the U.S. embassy teaching social action music. A lot of work for the Reform movement teaching about pluralism,” he said.

He ran an Israeli-Palestinian youth project “exploring how to be change-makers via their art. I used music in a creative way to bridge people, to spread tolerance and understanding.”

He wrote and performed his own music with a couple of different albums. And before returning to the U.S., he finished a world music album featuring musicians from Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Jordanians, Iranians, and Indians. That album is coming out soon.

Now he travels up and down the East Coast, giving concerts and workshops about social change, generally at high schools and universities.

His favorite song on “The Promised Land”?

“I love ‘Mission in the Rain,’” which in Hebrew is about Nachlaot, the Jerusalem neighborhood that today is home to a number of Deadheads and to the Radio Free Nachlaot Internet radio station, featuring a mixture of Torah and classic rock.

There’s plenty of cosmic wisdom in the lyrics of Robert Hunter. “Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,” he wrote in Ripple. “If your cup is full may it be again / Let it be known there is a fountain /That was not made by the hands of man.” Or, from another song: “It’s just a box of rain / I don’t know who put it there / Believe it if you need it / or leave it if you dare.”

But that’s not the side that comes out in the songs chosen for “The Promised Land.”

“Yes, they have motifs and recurring themes, like gambling and drinking and outlaws and guns and life and death. There’s a lot of recurring themes that pop up. It’s not all mellow. It’s something about the cycle of life, living and dying in America.

“Every song can be a specific reference or can about life in general or the world in general,” Mr. Rotem said.

How to listen to or buy “The Promised Land”

You can stream or buy a digital copy of “The Promised Land” at thepromisedland1.bandcamp.com. Streaming is free; the download is $7.

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