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Monday, November 21, 2005

Strung out

Strung out
By Dalia Karpel

Almost 29 years have gone by since the rock guitarist Yossi Piamenta left Israel for New York in order to work on his joint album with the legendary sax player Stan Getz. The album never happened. Instead, Piamenta found God and became religiously observant, married his 16-year-old cousin, raised six children and, within a few years, from his Brooklyn base, gained a reputation as the "Hasidic Hendrix," not to say the "gefilte Garcia."

Now he's back in Israel - for good, he says. "I have returned permanently. My father, who is 80, called me in New York and said, `Come back to Israel, be with me a little.' He never talked in that tone before, and I decided to come back. All my life I have played and made music and I won't stop. Now I will play in Israel and form a band and go abroad for gigs wherever I am invited. My base from today on is Tel Aviv."

Last week a phone was installed in his apartment on Frishman Street in the city. We sat on the balcony overlooking the street. Piamenta smoked one Noblesse after another, drank gallons of specially ground black coffee he brought from New York and never stopped serving equally high-quality imported refreshments - white strawberries from Afghanistan, raisins from Iran, cashews from Thailand.

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"I live like a millionaire, buy the best food in the world," he says. "When I cook I use the best materials. But the thing is that I am broke. Everything I had, I spent on life. The kids' tuition fees, which amount to thousands of dollars a year, and the rent for the big house in Brooklyn. You name it. Life is what happens now, right?"

He chuckles at the question of whether the return to Israel won't be an economic disaster for him, sending him back to 1976 when he earned $30 for playing at a Hasidic wedding - compared to receiving $2,000 for the same job at his peak.

"I have a bright future," says Piamenta. "I am optimistic. I will have a very good band here and I will play in every possible place in Israel and continue to record. Give me a month or two."

He plans to form a band with a bassist, percussionist, keyboard artist and, of course, his brother, flutist Avi Piamenta, who appeared with him during all the years in New York before returning to Israel a few years ago and settling in Kfar Chabad. Is Piamenta in fact counting on the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector? And who makes money from rock-'n-roll in Israel?

"I will play wherever people will pay me," he replies. I will not play with or accompany female singers, because kol b'isha erva" - a woman's voice is provocative - "and singing, as we know, makes people horny and that is forbidden. I will not play music for mixed dancing. But apart from those limitations, I will play anywhere ... I look at it with show-business eyes. How much does it cost to rent a hall that holds 500 people? I think it is possible to make money from music in this country and I can fill halls not only in the religious sector but in Tel Aviv, too. I don't want to sound like I'm on a trip, but I think it is possible."

For the present, there is no need to be concerned about Piamenta's economic well-being. On the first day of the intermediate days of Sukkot he appeared at a festive event in Baltimore ($3,000), and the next day in Queens ($2,000). So it's true that "Sukkot is the high point of the season and that I didn't work for a month" - but he doesn't rest for a moment and is almost frighteningly optimistic, even though he has known happier times in his personal life.

In May he and Vivian, his wife of 28 years, separated; they have six children and several grandchildren. Their case is now being handled in the courts. He won't talk about the reasons for the break-up; he finds the situation very difficult. His dream is to bring the children, of whom the youngest is eight, to Israel. "In August of this year I made up my mind to return and since then I have observed the Jewish holidays for one day: Israelis who live abroad have to observe them for two days, and now I am exempt from that. That proves I have already returned to Israel."

`Jimi lives'

On October 11, Piamenta, who is 54, took the stage in the Third Ear music store in Tel Aviv (located in the building of the former Maxim movie theater) for a special appearance commemorating the legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix. In the performance, called "Jimi Hendrix Lives," he was accompanied by the guitarist Shlomo Mizrahi and his band and by Chelly Sigalski, from the band the Blues Messengers. The evening was produced by the veteran rock devotee Shaul Grossberg, whom Piamenta calls "the professor of Israeli rock and the owner of the most comprehensive archive on the subject, which includes posters of my band from the early 1970s."

When Piamenta, who appeared as guest artist, took the stage, he was greeted by whistles and cheers as though he were the prodigal son who had returned home (which he was). Wearing a colorful Bukharian skullcap ("I loved Bukharian kippot even before I became religious, and the older they are, the more I love them - it's the best prop there is"), sporting a thick beard and white and snow-white ritual fringes peeking out over his Calvin Klein jeans, Piamenta was smilingly round and the warmth that illuminated his face was palpable. Every time he seemingly struck the guitar ("I come to the strings from far away"), the crowd responded with excitement. Among those who came to the performance was the composer and arranger Ilan Virtzberg, as well as Yisrael Borochov, from the Breira Hativit band, who used to play with Piamenta. Also prominent in the audience were about 20 young Chabadniks who came especially from Kfar Chabad, knowing that Piamenta - who is not identified with any religious stream ("I am a simple Jew") - made their brethren in New York dance and thrilled the senior rabbis, including the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself, with his distinctive Hasidic rock.

"What did you think, that for 20 years and more I wasted my time in America?" Piamenta says, and replies immediately: "It is very prestigious to play for rabbis. It's as though you were to tell me that Eric Clapton applauded me in a concert. I played before the greatest Torah sages and they listened with pleasure."

He is very proud of his meetings with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In the guest room of his father's house alone there are at least eight pictures of the Rebbe, framed and unframed, including a photo of Piamenta with him and also one of his secular father, Yehuda Piamenta - one of the original members of the prestigious 101st Paratroops unit commanded by Ariel Sharon, in the 1950s - bowing to the Rebbe. Not long ago he was moved to see a full-page High Holidays ad published by Chabad, featuring a photo of the Rebbe. "I have to send it to my sister in New Jersey," he says.

Piamenta was the first in his family to become religiously observant. His brother, Avi, the well-known flutist ("my second hand"), and their two sisters followed suit. Today they, too, have large families and are happy with their lot. "I do not use the term lahazor b'tshuva (to become penitent). I hope that on my last day I will be able to say that I have become penitent. To become penitent is a day-to-day process, whether you are religious or secular. What do you think, that religious people themselves don't become penitent - that they have no sins and transgressions?"

During all his years in New York, he also clung to his Israeliness, reading papers from Israel and not connecting to anything other than the music channels on local television. "I don't know how to turn on a computer. I don't have the head for that. Just let me play the guitar. In my free time I read Torah and Psalms; every year I learn a new interpretation of the Torah. That is what is really important."

But Piamenta is not a fanatic: When I extended a hand at our first meeting, he shook it without hesitation. "It is a transgression to reject an outstretched hand, even if it is a woman's hand, and to shame her," he explains. "May God forgive me - it is truly forbidden for me to touch women - but I live here and I am realistic and I am no less Israeli than the most secular person you can think of. I wear jeans and a T-shirt and you will not see me in a streimel [Hasidic hat]. On Shabbat I wear a fedora in honor of the synagogue."

High-end amp

From New York he brought over an amplifier he bought in 1976 ("Santana has one just like it"), when he first arrived in the United States, and the aged guitar from which he does not part. He bought the guitar in a store on 48th Street in New York during that same shopping trip, spending a week in the used guitar section until he found a 1963 Fender Stratocaster - "the one I love best." He paid $750 for the instrument and added parts to it, which he likens to special tires a racing driver installs on his car. He relates that in 1990 Bob Dylan offered to buy the guitar after he saw him play at a Chabad telethon. But Piamenta has no plans to replace it.

"It is battered from all the times I've hit it, and let's not forget the 15 years during which I played a few Hasidic weddings a week and played nonstop for five to nine hours at each wedding. In a rock show, three hours of playing is tops, but Hasidic weddings go on and on. And the guitar still serves me in the best away possible."

In 1993, when he was 42, The Village Voice magazine described him as the "Hasidic Hendrix." In 1998, a New York Post article added epithets such as the "Sephardi Santana" and also noted that Piamenta was not known well enough outside the Haredi neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Borough Park. "I got called a lot of things, such as `gefilte Garcia,' and my music was described as `Hasid rock,' which was written like `acid rock,'" he says. "I do not get excited by it. Someone wrote that I was `Mahavishnu Joe'" - referring to the legendary guitarist John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra. "Okay, so they wrote what they wrote. I am Yossi Piamenta, a Sephardi Jew born in Jerusalem."

Piamenta performed nonstop and in 1998 released an instrumental album, "Strings of My Heart." In the 1990s he appeared not only at Chabad weddings and other events, but also in New York clubs. "Around 1994 I went back to rock-'n-roll, and until 2000 I played at Wetlands, which closed down four years ago. I would rent the place and fill it. It was a mixed crowd - religious, blacks, Italians and South Americans, who read in the paper about the `Hasidic Hendrix' - and I didn't even play Hendrix!"

What is the "Piamenta style"? "I improvise in mixed styles between Mizrahi and rock and blues," he explains. "The Mizrahi is Mediterranean in the style of the Egyptian singers Umm Kulthum and Abd al-Wahab, the Syrian Sabah Fakhri and the Lebanese songstress Fairouz. In all the music I ever played, including the Hasidic music, I was a rock guitarist. I played with music greats and I became religious and I had a daughter, so how was I to make a living? Instead of becoming a cab driver, I chose weddings of Hasidim, for whom the guitar was impure because it meant sex, drugs and rock-'n-roll. When I got into Hasidic music in New York, the usual instruments in Hasidic bands were the organ, saxophone, trumpet, trombone and clarinet, but never a guitar. It took time for them to understand that I played on the guitar the songs the way they sing them. They sang `Ahhh' and I stretched the string to make it sound like the human voice. Hendrix's technique served me. When they said it was all impure, I explained to them that the instrument does not determine impurity or holiness - only the musician determines that."

Piamenta's mother, Genia Swed, was born in Damascus and arrived in Jerusalem with her family at the age of eight. At the age of 16 she married Yehuda Piamenta, the boy next door. The patriarch of the Piamenta family, with its nine children, Yosef Piamenta (for whom his grandson, Yossi, is named), was an inspector for the department of health during the period of the British Mandate. For years there has been a dispute in the Piamenta family over whether they have been in the country for 14 generations or only seven, because the members of one generation left for a few years.

Yossi's father, Yehuda Piamenta, was a combat intelligence officer, achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel. Yossi spent his early childhood in Jerusalem; afterward the family moved to Upper Nazareth, where his father was a liaison between the Nazareth Arabs and the Histadrut federation of labor and government bodies. In 1963, when Yossi was about 12, the family settled in Tel Aviv. He received his first guitar at the age of 13 from his uncle, the jazz and rock musician Albert Piamenta.

"For about two months all I did was play around with it and then complaints started that I wasn't doing my homework and that I was cutting classes, and Dad smashed the guitar," he recalls. "I was so upset that I stopped eating and after a time he bought me a pretty good guitar, which I played on for about six years."

The three-way battle - father-son-guitar - did not stop. "When Dad, who was pretty strict, understood that I skipped an entire trimester in ninth grade and that I had to do the year over, he registered me in the military boarding school in Haifa - only a military regime would whip me into shape, he said. I went through a crisis there - suddenly I had to make my bed and report for morning roll call - but it didn't break me in any way. I won talent contests with the guitar in the Reali School in Haifa and I was one of the guys. True, I wasn't much at soldiering, but I got good marks at Reali. During vacations I met in Tel Aviv with the members of the first rhythm groups, such as Yitzhak Klepter. But one day I accidentally fired a bullet while cleaning my rifle in my room at the military boarding school at 8 P.M. I was court-martialed and kicked out. They said I could have killed someone."

He finished high school at Ironi Daled in Tel Aviv, but skipped the matriculation exams. "I didn't go for a scholarly career," he says. Instead, Piamenta joined Black and White, a rhythm band. He did his military service in the Artillery Corps, and in 1974, about a year after his release, founded the Piamenta Band, which fused rock, jazz and Mizrahi (Mediterranean) music. "Today I can say that all these titles are pathetic. It's an original style that has no name, so they give it a label - `Mizrahi rock.' Stan Getz was once asked what turns him on about Piamenta, and he said that what turns me on is that I play in my own style."

Meaning?

Piamenta: "My roots are in rock-'n-roll. I was a big fan of The Shadows, Cliff Richards' band, and its guitarist, Hank Marvin, was for me the greatest of them all. I liked blues and then the Beatles, and it went on to rock in all styles."

It turns out that he cannot read music - "For me, learning means listening," he explains. He listened to jazz a lot and after the army made a living in part by appearing with Jojo Musa's band, which played Arab music and accompanied soloists who sang rock and pop. In 1975, while doing a gig in Nahariya on Friday evening, Piamenta got an electric shock - he still has scars on his fingertips. "The strings burned my hand and the voltage was 340 watts. My hands were locked onto the microphone and the guitar. My brother touched me and also got an electric shock - it took a kick to detach the electric cable from the guitar. Zvika Pik, who was also supposed to perform that night, did not do his gig, and I was hospitalized for a few days. The papers called me the `electrified guitarist.'"

About a year later Stan Getz arrived in the country to perform in the Israel Festival. Piamenta heard that Getz was staying at the Hilton and decided to make his move. "I called and asked to speak to him and to my surprise he suddenly answered. I told him I admired him as a giant of a musician and invited him to come see me so I could play him wonderful music. He didn't really want to come. I told him, `I will bring you whatever you want - good Lebanese hashish, for example.' But he didn't go for it. I asked him what he would like and he said, `Girls.' I told him I had two charming sisters and he laughed and said, `I'm sure you wouldn't want me to mess around with your sisters.' I said, `That's right, but they are special and charming, so come.' He said he would. I bought a quarter of a bag of hash and brought a water-pipe home. I begged my father to let people smoke in the house, but he wasn't ready to agree to that. Finally I persuaded him that only Stan Getz would smoke, because otherwise he wasn't willing to come.

"We prepared a royal feast for Getz. At first he sat in the living room with my parents and sisters and ate. When he wanted to smoke, we went to my room, where the music equipment was. I put half a finger of hash on the water-pipe, and after it was gone we started to play. My brother Avi played the flute, the drummer was Benny Kadishzon and the bassist was Joe Mir [today a physician in New Jersey and married to Piamenta's sister]. Getz was bowled over by the music and asked whether we had ever recorded it. I told him we had no budget for that. He delayed his return trip by two weeks and with his funding we recorded all the songs in the Kolinor Studios. He took the master to New York and two months later called me to come and do the mix there."

For a few months Piamenta lived at Getz's home in New York. During the work the two had a professional disagreement, and Piamenta was also turned off by the lifestyle he saw: "Everyone was taking cocaine and couples were mixing and married people were cheating on each other and their kids hated them and everyone was loaded with money. I was disgusted. I experienced a crisis and I was disappointed in those people. A month after that I returned to Israel."

Why did you become religious?

"In my last year in the army I started to look for myself. At first I got interested in Zen Buddhism and meditation. I studied anthroposophy and I read the writings of Rudolf Steiner, but nothing clicked. As a boy, my maternal grandfather took me to the synagogue, so I had traditional roots, but didn't realize that I was on the way to religion. I was lacking something and I didn't know what I was looking for, until I understood that I was on a search for Divinity. One day I arrived at the awareness that the world has a Creator.

"All this also connects with the day on which I went to New York to meet Stan Getz. I was 25 and it was my first trip abroad. At my parents' place I looked for something that would symbolize home for me. After all, I am a native son and for me Israeliness was natural, so I looked for something that would leave the country in me. I looked until I encountered my bar mitzvah tefillin [phylacteries]. I stayed with Getz for six months and I put on tefillin every day, because it gave me a good feeling. I did not observe Shabbat and I did not eat kosher food; I just put on tefillin. A few months later I went home and then Getz came to Israel and we went on tour, with Getz playing material of his and mine, and I kept on with the tefillin. One day I discovered within myself that God exists, and the next stage was what he wants from me. So I started to study Torah."

In November 1977 Piamenta married Vivian in London. The daughter of his uncle on his mother's side, he had not seen her since the age of nine, since she moved with her family to Miami. When he was in the United States he visited his relatives and the two fell in love at first sight. But she was only 15 and unable to be married in Israel. His parents were not surprised by their desire to wed. The solution: to get married in London, when Vivian was almost 16. "She was secular when we met and when the relationship grew closer, I asked her, `You know our parents and you know the way of life of our grandmother and grandfather. Which seems to you to have more quality?' We agreed that the traditional lifestyle of the grandparents was preferential. From the day we were married, I started to observe Shabbat."

At the age of 17 Vivian was already the mother of Genia, today 27 and the mother of four (and expecting a fifth). A year later Zippi (26) was born, followed a year later by Muni (25), who is a singer and has managed his father's business affairs since Piamenta underwent open-heart surgery three years ago. They were followed by Rachel (18), Yehuda (17) - who, according to his father, is "a scary guitarist with his guitarism" - and the youngest son, Avi. Vivian, a saleswoman in a Manhattan shop, did not want to hear about living in Israel, but now that the two have separated Piamenta believes the way has been paved to bring his children here, too. "We will live here on Frishman. So what if the apartment is relatively small? After all, I also grew up here."

Piamenta's naivete is captivating: His father's apartment is not located on a good section of Frishman and there seems to be an escort service operating on the first floor. "Every time I leave the building," says Piamenta, "someone shouts at me, `At least shave off the beard,' as though I had come out of that particular apartment."

Piamenta has released 13 albums and the songs on all of them are in Hebrew. The album he made with Getz, with his brother and sisters accompanying, was never released. Getz died in 1991, but Piamenta still has the masters. About 10 months ago he had the unfinished mixed transferred to a computer. "I intend to go back to the studio and finish the album when I have about $20,000, so that it will have the proper quality, as I dreamed back then."

If we exclude the Hasidic albums, his representative work, he says, consists of "Strings of My Heart" and two albums he recorded live recently in New York, featuring an abundance of original rock music of his own: "Piamenta Live" and "Heavenly Jams Band." (The latter also features bassist Oteil Burbridge, who in 1997 joined the veteran Allman Brothers Band.) "It is only in the past two years that I played with famous American artists. People approach me, or someone organizes it. Two months ago I appeared with Pinetop Perkins, the most classical blues pianist going, who received his Grammy from Clapton. He is 92, climbs onstage with a cane, and sits down at the piano. The performance was at a Toronto club and was packed. I also played with Leo Nocentelli, the legendary guitarist of the Funky Meters, one of the black bands that invented funk in the 1970s."

Aren't you concerned that secular people will have a hard time accepting the connection you are creating between religious texts, rock and fusion?

"It's a song. Those are the lyrics. You hear music, let's say in the Hendrix style, not with the words `Come on baby,' but instead with `Blessed be Hashem' - what doesn't go with music? The problem is that you can't imagine that there is a believing person who is just as modern as you. In your view, it is impossible to ride a rocket, only a donkey, to be religious. I have to play the clarinet in order to be considered a true Jew. I connect sacred verses and rock in the most natural way. Back at the beginning of the 1970s, before I became religious, I set music to `One commandment brings another' and the grace after the meal, and the Piamenta Band played original Israeli rock to those texts at Beit Lessin. I am not schizophrenic. I make no separation between what I play and what I express in words. Everything returns to the same center: I am a Jew who grew up in Jerusalem and lives in Tel Aviv, who has been playing music all his life and uttering words that express what my soul feels."

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