The song that ate the world: The global domination of “Hava Nagila.”

“Insert Jewish song” in a screenplay usually means that the movie’s attendees will hear a clarinet playing “Hava Nagila.” This is relatively new song in the Jewish canon, written in the early 1900s (yes, that is “new”; the Psalms were written 3,000 years ago.). Since then, it has become symbolic of Jewish music altogether.

But while my last post was about non-Jewish music’s influence on Jewish music, this time I thought I’d point the arrow the other way. And the easiest way to do that is to take a tour through time and around the world… with “Hava Nagila.”

Here is a fairly standard version. One thing the Russian immigration has done for Israel is given this sunny nation the opportunity to compete in the Winter Olympics. This clip is not from the Israeli ice-dancing team’s Olympic appearance, which also used the song, but it’s close enough. There are Olympic gymnastic floor routines to this song by tumblers from the US, Canada, Russia, Ukraine, and Romaina, too.

Other versions have been performed by a huge variety of American stars: Chubby Checker (a twist version), Connie Francis, Glenn Campbell (it’s the B-side of “True Grit”), Lena Horne, surf-rocker Dick Dale, and of course Jewish performers from The Barry Sisters to Bob Dylan; the son-in-law in Bob’s video is Peter Himmelman. (All but Lena’s are on YouTube.) And while he never put it out as a single, Elvis was found noodling the tune during rehearsal.

Allan Sherman’s classic “Harvey and Sheila” parodies the song… and American social climbing. Some parodies defy explanation… and taste. The song has been featured on screen, too, in everything from TV’s “Laugh-In” to the movie “Daddy Day Care.”

But fundamentally “Hava Nagila” is a dance song. Dance-pop versions getting radio play have ranged from “Dance, Everyone Dance,” which Betty Madigan took to #31 in 1958… to the Lauren Rose version, which climbed the UK charts in 2007.  A similar one by Brandon Stone has more original lyrics.

And there seem to be no end of techno versions; this popular one is credited to “Alex M. vs. Marc van Damme.” If you like it, you can find many more like it by searching “Hava Nagila Remix” on YouTube.

Other more recent acts covering or sampling the song include Ben Folds Five, NOFX (its bass player, Fat Mike, is Jewish), LMFAO, and moe. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes sing it on an album called Ruin Jonny’s Bar Mitzvah (and yes, “Jonny” has no ‘h’). The album is a recording of the band playing at an actual bar mitzvah; the second time through, they introduce “Hava Nagila” with, um, “Feliz Navidad.”

For some reason, “Hava Nagila” is popular with heavy metal acts. It could be because Anthrax (whose lead guitarist, Scott Ian, is Jewish) sampled the song in the opening to “I’m the Man.” Dream Theater did the song during their Tel Aviv show (1:17 mark)… and Sonata Arctica, from Finland, closes their shows with the melody and their own, presumably Finnish, words. counts 444 albums with “Hava Nagila” on them. And some 250+ more with alternate spellings ranging from “Havah Negilah” to “Havana Gila,” which could be about a Cuban lizard if one didn’t know better.

Speaking of Cuba, Celia Cruz has assayed the song as well. “World music” has always been a part of American music, from Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz mixing Cuban sounds with swing music to Harry Belafonte performing “Hava Nagila” at Carnegie Hall in 1959. Harry’s other major hit, “The Banana Boat Song,” (a.k.a. “Day-O!”) by the way, also has Jewish origins; it was written by Alan Arkin. Belafonte also performed “Hava Nagila” with Danny Kaye (born David Daniel Kaminsky). Both Kaye and the song’s melody are of Ukrainian extraction, as it happens.

So now we turn to… the rest of the world. Here is just a smattering of “Hava Nagila” in various styles and languages:

Flamenco: I have no idea who put this with the opening to Disney’s “Bolt”… or why.

Orchestral: Conducted by violinist André Rieu 

Scottish: Performed by one Bobby Bagpipes. Just a taste, not the full song.

French: Her name is Dalida. The French part starts at the 1:00 mark. 

Bollywood: I don’t know the film’s title, but handy subtitles in Hebrew and Russian are provided.

Swedish klezmer: They are called Zimmes, after a dish that goes well with… herring?

Estonian dance-pop: Violina is a small, all-woman string ensemble doing classical crossover, like bond or the Ahn Trio.

Azerbaijani guitar ensemble: An all-instrumental version.

Russian a cappella: and the oppsite, and all-vocal version. Will a Russian reader please translate the caption in the video? These women are awesome!

Russian New Wave: Bah Moo is from, I’m guessing, the 1980s...? Or maybe only their video sensibilities are.

Hong Kong: It’s a duo called the Chopsticks. This one’s a fake-out; they sound American.

In a Japanese park: with… The Dancing Random Passers-By!

Beatles-ish: This is a tribute act called Hard Day’s Day.

And would you believe… Arabic? Her name is Ema Shah, and she is from Kuwait. For playing “Hava Nagila” in public, she was threatened with political exile by the parliament, with religious excommunication by the Islamic authorities, and with death by her fellow citizens. Salman Rushdie had to write a whole novel to get the same honor.

Why, they even do “Hava Nagila” down Texas way. Even if they do use a church choir and a bluegrass electric fiddle.

Of course, Hava Nagila ultimately is a Jewish song. You can hear it at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and other simchas… and even on the streets (scroll to halfway point) wherever Jews are.

Evidently, I am not the only one trying to explain the universal allure of this simple tune; someone is making a whole documentary about it!

Is there a style or version I missed? Let me know in the comments! 

Paul Wieder photo 2013
Paul Wieder is putting Jewish music on your playlist! Plus updates on Jewish music festivals, reviews of Jewish music websites and blogs, and insights from Jewish music producers and promoters. Let’s make Jewish music part of your well-balanced musical diet!... Read More

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