Interview with Jewish Guitar Hero Yossi Piamenta

They've all come to see the Israeli man with the big colorful kippah and grey beard shred super fast guitar solos with Sephardic rhythms.

Ben Bresky,

Yossi PIamenta
Yossi PIamenta
A. Hyman -

In downtown Jerusalem, tucked in between a mini-market, a post office and around the corner from McDonald's is Blaze. The small club is known for its open mic nights, metal nights, and sports broadcasts. But now, every Sunday is known as Yossi Piamenta night. Stray metalheads and sports fans mix with yeshiva students, American immigrants and on some nights, members of Yossi's family. They have all come to see the middle-aged Israeli man with the big colorful kippah and big grey beard shred super fast guitar solos backed by swirling Sephardic rhythms. After living for 32 years in the United States, Piamenta seems to have settled back in his hometown.

On stage, most of the tunes are original compositions or new arrangements of classic Jewish tunes. There is an occasional cover such as Kol Hamesameach, Piamenta's Jewish version of Tarkan's Turkish Kiss, but with Hebrew lyrics and a ripping guitar solo. And of course there is Asher Bara, Piamenta's Jewish version of Men At Work's Down Under but with Hebrew lyrics and a ripping guitar solo. 

Over the years he has released nine full length albums, most of them together with his brother Avi, a flute player under the name Piamenta. Much of his past material has a very Jewish yeshiva feel. Other tracks have more of a Middle Eastern style. But Yossi's blazing guitar is present throughout, even if it is just hinted at on some songs.

Yossi Piamenta talked about his life in an exclusive interview with Israel National Radio's Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast. 

To download the mp3 click on the INR player or click here.

Question: Why do you play Blaze? It's a small club.

Answer: I love playing such a place. It's really nice.

Question: But you could play a big concert halls.

Answer: I do!

Question: So why do you choose this small, intimate downtown pub?

Answer: Because I get to play with my heart.

Question: Where do you get these songs from? I've heard some of your tunes at weddings. One is by Ibn Ezra.

Answer: I am a Yerushlami born. 14 generations. Some songs are in the blood of every Yerushalmi. The traditional, best songs.

Question: How did you start out? Did you always do this rock style?

Answer: When I was 10, I was in Tel Aviv and I would listen to Elvis and then the Beatles and then all the rock scene. And then I discovered [Jimi] Hendrix when I was in the army. And that was it. That was the best.

Question: Were you in the army band? Did you play your style in the army?

Answer: No. In the army we played like we were in the army. It was Israeli "lahaka tzvaiit", traditional Israeli folklore music. 

The Piamenta band regularly performs Jewish weddings and other celebrations and their albums are sold in Jewish book stores. But Yossi has also performed with many well known American musicians as well. Of those he recorded with, he singles out jazz legend Stan Getz. A track they did together is featured on Piamenta's web site. He also enjoyed performing with Oteil Burbridge of the Allman Brothers Band, the Derek Trucks Band and Matisyahu. Piamenta adds, "but I always kept my style -- Hebrew rock, oriental Middle Eastern rock."

Question: A question I always try to ask is "what is Jewish music?" Is true Jewish music only klezmer? 

Answer: I do klezmer with electric guitar. 

Question: But is it Jewish enough? What exactly is Jewish enough for you?

Answer: Listen, there is Jewish that comes from Eastern Europe and Jewish that comes from the Middle East. They are both called Jewish.

Question: Can you give us a Torah lesson about music?

Answer: The Jewish religion never separated from the music. When you read Torah in the shul, you read it with the notes, with ta'amim [cantillation]. That's the notes of the Bible. It's all being sung. And when there's prayers, the hazan never talks, he always sings. In the Beit Hamikdash [Holy Temple] when they do the korbanot, then it has to come from the heart. It can't be done as just an act, because you have to mean what you do. The Leviim used to sing and play on the stages above the mizbeyach. The people who would perform the korbanot would hear the music and cry. And since they cried, their korbanot would be accepted because it came with tears. The band in the Beit Hamikdash had thousands of people. The first organ in the world was the "ugav" in Beit Hamikdash. Only later did the Christians put it in the churches. 

Question: Do you think they had electric guitars in the Temple?

Answer: I'm sure they will in the future. About the past, I cannot tell you. They didn't use electric instruments.

Question: Let's talk about Asher Bara. Some people that grew up in the Jewish community don't know that it's "I Come from a Land Down Under" by the Australian band Men At Work.

Answer: A Jewish lawyer once called me and told me that he heard my song Asher Bara sung in English by another band and that it sounded the same. He said, "you want me to sue them?" I told him that he can't sue them because they are the original. We covered them. 

Question: Has Men At Work ever heard it?

Answer: I don't know. In Australia they used to call it "Hebrew Men At Work" on the radio.

Question: Albert Piamenta is a well-known veteran jazz saxophonist here in Israel. How is he related to you?

Answer: He is my uncle and he is my first music teacher. He gave me my first guitar and made sure I knew how to play it.

Question: Did he push you to take up saxophone?

Answer: No. He told me, "You play what you like." And I like guitar.

Question: And Avi Piamenta is your brother.

Answer: Oh yeah. He's my second half. When I play with Avi, we don't need to rehearse. 

Question: Do you see a difference between the audiences in America and here in Israel? 

Answer: The only difference I see in America is the volume. In America everything is big. Here everything's is smaller. But here it is more concentrated and more real. 

Question: Any final words about you or your music? 

Answer: I would love to see as many Israelis coming to my concerts here. It feels good to play to brothers. Benyamin, I want to see you coming again to my concert! All the best!

For more information on Piamenta click here. For more information on the free Sunday night gigs click here.

Ben Bresky is a music journalist and host of the Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast on Arutz Sheva - Israel National Radio. For show archives click here.

Photos from the RockAmi Festival in Jerusalem. Courtesy of A. Hyman Photography