Until this summer, I was not a huge fan of Dan Nichols, one of the most well-known members of the current generation of Jewish contemporary-style musicians in America. Jesse Paikin, a close friend of mine, blogger of Philosophical Rants, and a fantastic Jewish musician in his own right, took some time at Kutz this summer to explain to me the genius of Nichols’ blends of Hebrew texts with his own creative English translations. In particular, he explained to me the genius of Dan’s use of English with his own version of Ani Ma’amin, which you can find on Dan’s newest and, by far, Dan’s best CD, The Roots.
Recently, I discovered some very clever lyrics in another of Dan’s songs.
Here at Drew, I’m the percussionist for the Drew University Ubuntu Pan-African Choir, which is a long way of saying that I play hand drums with a choir that sings mostly gospel and negro spiritual-type songs. We also sing this one Arabic song that’s really cool.
Earlier this week, I e-mailed Mark, the choir’s director, with an obscure live recording of Dan from Hava Nashira singing a very gospel-y song with the lyrics “Hold on/Keep your eyes on the prize/Lo yisa goi el goi cherev v’lo yilmdu od michamah.” I’ve been really wanting to have a Hebrew song in the Pan-Af Choir’s repetoire for a long time, and I felt that this would be a good chance.
As Mark explained to me, the song is actually and old slave song that goes “Hold on/Keep your eyes on the prize/Hold on/Keep your hand on the plow.” The Hebrew, obviously then, is Dan’s own addition to the song.
Here’s where we get into the awesomeness of Dan’s combination of English and Hebrew text. First of all, it presents a very typically Reform messanic ideal. “Keep your eyes on the prize.” What’s the ultimate prize? Not resurrection or a personal messiah or anything like that, but the perfect prophetic description of an Eidan Meshichi, a Messiance Age: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. They shall study war no more.”
But it gets even cooler. Though, in Dan’s version, the line from the original song, “Keep your hand on the plow” has been excised, an allusion to agricultural work as a rewarding activity is included. The verse following “Lo yisa goi el goi cherev, etc.” is “They shall beat their swords into plows, their spears into pruninghooks”!
Holy crap. Good stuff. Fun texts.
For those of you who read this whole post, here’s a reward: a fun video of Dan from this summer at Kutz. He’s wearing one of the “Kutz: the Jerusalem of NFTY” shirts that David Singer and I designed.