Hava Nagila

Hava Nagila (“Let us Rejoice”) - Traditional Hasidic tune

This is maybe the most popular and the most recognizable Jewish melody. It is also an example of my favorite type of story: the Ugly Duckling tale (other examples include "Blue Danube" waltz and the song "Moscow Nights").  The melody came from wordless “nigun” (tune) of Ukrainian Hasidim, who brought it to Jerusalem at the end of the 19th century. No one paid much attention to it there until 1918, when bandmaster and music scholar Avraham Zvi Idelsohn (who collected folk melodies from many Jewish communities around the world) chose to play this tune at a celebration in Jerusalem, after the British army defeated the Turks. Idelsohn added lyrics, derived from Psalms:

    Hava nagila, hava nagila

    Hava nagila ve-nismeha  

    Hava neranena, hava neranena

    Hava neranena ve-nismeha

    Uru, uru ahim

    Uru ahim be-lev sameah

    Let us rejoice, let us rejoice

    Let us rejoice and be glad

    Let us sing, let us sing

    Let us sing and be glad

    Awake, awake brothers

    Awake brothers with a joyful heart!

In his own words, “The choir sang it, and it apparently caught the imagination of the people, for the next day men and women were singing the song throughout Jerusalem. In no time, it spread throughout the country, and thence throughout the Jewish world.”

In the 1950s, the song became very popular with non-Jewish musicians, such as mambo legend Machito, or the Californian guitarist Dick Dale. But perhaps the most enthusiastic admirer of the song was the pop star Harry Belafonte. He sung “Hava Nagila” as an encore almost at every concert, and summarized the song’s appeal in moving words:

“It is possible during the lifetime of a musical artist to find many songs that will touch the hearts of people in many different places in the world. It is most unique to find one song that will do that to all people. Such a song is ‘Hava Nagila’. To be given an opportunity to popularize the song and to have so many people by diverse backgrounds be touched by it is an honor”.

The modern-day audience is so used to this energizing, vigorous melody, that it is almost a shock to listen to the original performance by Idelsohn’s choir: it is very slow and lingering. Maybe at the time this recording was made – in the early 1920s – they were still influenced by traditions of Hasidic and cantorial singing. In my arrangement, I first follow these traditions, and then gradually “return” to the modern way of playing this tune – simply put, playing it faster and faster...

* * *

This story is just a tidbit from Alexander's "Songs of Exiles" concert program. To hear the full story, together with Alexander's virtuoso performance, come see him at his next concert! To buy this track, or the full CD of the music from "Songs of Exiles", follow the link on the left.  

You may also listen to a sample of this song on Amazon.com or iTunes