Grateful Dead in Hebrew new album offers a new listening experience

An Israeli musician has just spent two years of his life on a project that seems completely at odds with who he is. After all, he’s known as the “the Godfather of Israeli hip-hop.”

Yet Khen Rotem has teamed up with folk musician Ami Yares to produce an album titled “The Promised Land: The Grateful Dead/Jerry Garcia Hebrew Project.” It was released last week.

All 16 tracks — including “Bertha,” “Cold Rain and Snow” and “Friend of the Devil” — have been translated from English and recorded in Hebrew, which makes for a very interesting listening experience. The songs can be heard for free, or downloaded for $7, on the online music site Bandcamp.

Rotem, who goes by the moniker Sagol 59, said his career as a hip-hop performer didn’t preclude him from taking on a long, painstaking project involving the music of a band, the Grateful Dead, that, frankly, many people simply aren’t into — especially in Israel.

“I wasn’t so contaminated with prejudice about them because I don’t live in the States,” Rotem said by phone from Jerusalem, where he resides. “I didn’t have any preconceptions about them. I listen to a wide array of music; I don’t differentiate between Grandmaster Flash and Johnny Cash. I listen to it all: jazz, rock, hip-hop, blues, whatever.”

Yares, on the other hand, has been into the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia for 20 years. A New Jersey native who lived in Jaffa for many years, he was in high school in 1995 when someone put a copy of “American Beauty” in his hand. Shortly thereafter, he was turned onto a legendary bootleg tape of a Grateful Dead show at Cornell University in 1977, considered by many to be one of the Dead’s best live recordings.

Rotem and Yares met through the music scene in Israel, and the project began in earnest when they got to talking a few years ago at the Dancing Camel, a bar in Tel Aviv.

Rotem told Yares about a project he had embarked on: translating Grateful Dead songs into Hebrew. Turns out that Rotem has a long history of doing this with other music he likes, everything from Leonard Cohen to Grandmaster Flash.

Yares said yes, immediately, “and it just flowed from there,” said Rotem.

It took him about 18 months, he said, to translate 16 songs, and he was methodical in which he chose.

“That was the difficult part, to sit with their songbook and choose, because some of their songs are untranslatable,” Rotem said. “I couldn’t have done the free-flowing ones, like ‘Eyes of the World’ or ‘Terrapin Station.’ I chose the ones that are more blues-based or ballad-based, which are more approachable.”

Once the songs were chosen, with each, he had to come up with a word or concept that he called “the bingo moment,” that proved to him he could do it.

For example, when he knew “Sugaree” could become “Matokoti” (My Sweet), and when he realized that “I Know You Rider” has the same number of syllables to correspond with “Ani Yodea” (I Know).

The songs now have a distinctly Israeli flair to them as well, since Rotem didn’t want to be singing about places like Reno or Tennessee. In the song “Mission in the Rain,” which is about San Francisco’s Mission District, Rotem changed it to Nachlaot, a popular Jerusalem neighborhood.

“It’s harder to translate when you sing it,” Rotem said. “You have to sing it and make it sound convincing. The hard job is to make it fit in your mouth and on your tongue, and in Hebrew, and not sound really awkward and ridiculous.”

With exception to the language, the musical arrangements of the songs are instantly recognizable to any Deadhead.

“We didn’t try to copy the Dead, but we didn’t go for a post-punk industrial hip-hop angle, either,” Rotem pointed out.

Added Yares: “Each song has a different treatment, but all fall within the realm of the Dead. ‘Friend of the Devil’ has the ‘American Beauty’ feel, while ‘I Know You Rider’ has a country shuffle beat. There are so many Dead cover bands, but everyone does it differently while still having that flavor. If we’re trying to attract Deadheads to this, we didn’t want to change it too much.”

Rotem gave Yares props for adding an oud (a pear-shaped string instrument from ancient times) solo to “I Know You Rider.”

“This can only happen here [in Israel],” Rotem said. “I don’t think any American musician would have the imagination or instinct to do that.”

Both men said they’re not sure whether they’ll perform the music live in Israel, even though “there is a very devout Deadhead community in Israel of 400 to 500 people,” Rotem said, adding, “and I think I know each and every one of them.”

Fans of the band in Israel are usually U.S. immigrants, as native Israelis never really became fans of the Grateful Dead. Then again, Rotem said, American bands like the Allman Brothers and the Beach Boys never really caught on in Israel, either.

“Israelis tend to prefer British bands,” he said.

Then again, he thinks this album may turn some Israelis on to the Dead — noting that their version of “Friend of the Devil” has been playing on the Galei Tzahal (the official army radio station of the Israel Defense Forces).

“I’m not sure they’re even aware it’s a cover,” Rotem said of the station programmers, who usually play only pop hits.

Based on the comments on the Bandcamp music site, the response from abroad has been tremendous. Almost everyone who has purchased and downloaded the music has added a note to it, such as “Amazing!” and “Why didn’t anyone do this earlier?”

Yares said one cool outcome that they didn’t anticipate is that it can be used as a tool to teach Hebrew to Americans.

“There are all of these Americans running around Israel who can’t speak a lick of Hebrew, and this gives them a chance to learn it,” Yares said.

Rotem added that many downloads are coming with requests for the lyrics in Hebrew, which he promised he will send to each and every person who asks.

While the men got permission from the Grateful Dead’s publishing company to pursue the project, they haven’t heard a response yet.

Rotem said the project was very much in the spirit of the Dead, and that he wasn’t pushing it, but “it was pushing itself and has its own karma.” He continued: “It’s not budgeted, and we have no PR person, and it’s great to see how it’s developing on its own.”

The pair also said there was a big coincidence: On the day they finished mixing the album, the Grateful Dead’s surviving members announced they would reunite for one last time in Chicago in July to mark their 50th anniversary. (Later, they added some additional shows in Santa Clara.)

“We didn’t know when we started that this was going to happen,” said Rotem. “We thought 2015 would be a good year to do it.”

They hope to get the album into the hands of some members of the Dead.

“I think it’s inevitable that they’ll hear about it,” said Rotem. “They’re really busy now with the reunion thing, and I don’t think they have the bandwidth to listen to it now, but after the whole shebang is over, they are going to hear it, one way or another. I’m not pushing it on anybody, but the response is overwhelming so far, so it will get to them, I’m sure.”

Rotem (as Sagol 59) performed in the Bay Area a few years ago as a hip-hop artist. Sagol, by the way, means purple — and “purple, number 59” was his laundry ID tag on Kibbutz Ein HaHoresh, where he grew up.

Rotem would like to return to the Bay Area with Yares and perform the album’s Grateful Dead tunes in Hebrew.  “I think the Bay Area is very fertile ground for this,” he said.

By the way, wondering how Rotem was introduced to the music of the Dead in the first place? Blame it on his girlfriend.

“When you’re living with a Deadhead, it’s hard to avoid hearing the music,” he said with a laugh. “You know how it goes, you’re drawn slowly into it. Before I knew it, I learned to love it without any prejudice attached.”

To listen or buy The Promised Land, visit Bandcamp.com by using this link: www.tinyurl.com/grateful-dead-hebrew

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."