Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Hava Nagila: the Story of a Song

Like Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” “Hava Nagila” is a song worthy of its own biographical treatment.  It started in Ukraine and became a staple of Jewish American celebrations, but the identity of its composer remains a controversy.  Documentary filmmaker Roberta Grossman tells the story of the song and those who sing it in Hava Nagila: the Movie (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It was based on a nigun, a wordless prayer chant incorporated into the services of the Nineteenth Century Ukrainian Hasidic community.  To commemorate the Balfour Declaration, it was adapted into the song now commonly heard at weddings and bat/bar mitzvahs.  Just who adapted it depends on whether you talk to the Idelson or Nathanson families.  Likewise, it means different things to different musicians.  To a serious Klezmer artist like Frank London, it is rather a cliché.  Yet to old school entertainers like Glen Campbell and Irving Fields, it is a rhythmic crowd-pleaser.  Yes, that Glen Campbell.  He recorded “Hava” as the B-side to his “True Grit” single and shares some pleasant reflections with Grossman during an interview recorded at his synagogue a few years back.

Indeed, Hava will certainly change many viewers perception of Campbell, but it is the ageless Irving Fields who truly demands his own documentary.  Known for fusing traditional Jewish music with Latin dance music, the ninety-four year-old Fields still gigs as a leader six nights a week in Manhattan—and could easily pass for a man at least twenty-five years his junior.  The music must keep him young, naturally including “Hava.”

Hava boasts some impressive musician-commentators, including Harry Belafonte (interviewed in the Village Vanguard, where he once performed when Max Gordon also booked folkies), Johnny “They Call Me Bruce” Yune, and Russian indie singer-songwriter Regina Spektor, who relates “Hava” to the Russian Refusenik experience. 

Less successful is the rather muddled 1960’s section, in which we are told the Jewish children of the suburbs embraced the song as some kind of folky communal something or other.  The film’s chatty tone also becomes somewhat problematic over time.  Co-produced by Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman, Hava’s shticky title cards and comedy sketch interludes often feel like a sitcom trying too hard to be irreverent.

Although plenty of talking heads consider “Hava” corny, it is hard to dislike a song so deeply associated with celebration and the early founding of the State of Israel.  It is also hard to argue with the likes of Campbell, Elvis Presley, and longtime Israel booster Lionel Hampton, all of whom covered “Hava.”  Despite its weirdly inconsistent tone, Hava puts “Hava” in the proper historical context.  Recommended for those interested in the intersection of Jewish history and musical tradition, Hava Nagila: the Movie opens this Friday (3/1) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza.