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Orthodox Rocker Yosi Piamenta Dies at 64

The ‘Hasidic Hendrix’ wowed crowds with his soulful electric licks for four decades

Jonathan Zalman
August 24, 2015

Yosi Piamenta, who once called himself, simply, a “Jewish rock-and-roller,” died in Brooklyn on Sunday after a battle with cancer. He was 64 years old.

Born in Jerusalem in 1951, Piamenta grew up in a household he described as a “little bit traditional but for sure not religious… We went out to picnics on Shabbat.”

When he was a kid, Piamenta received a $30 acoustic guitar from his uncle and learned how to play it by tuning in to the music on the local radio, and playing along, with the instruction of his uncle Albert, a jazz saxophonist. His family soon moved to Tel Aviv and at the age of ten he began listening to Elvis and the Beatles and formed a cover band. When Piamenta entered into his army service at the age of 18, he played mostly lahaka tzvaiit, or “traditional Israeli folklore music,” rather than rock ‘n roll. But during his time in the IDF he also discovered Jimi Hendrix. “And that was it,” Piamenta said in 2012. “That was the best.”

Yosi Piamenta in New York City, 1996 (Courtesy of Menachem Butler)
Yosi Piamenta in New York City, 1996 (Courtesy of Menachem Butler)

During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Piamenta, along with his brother Avi (“my second half”), a flutist, played for the soldiers. They soon became full-time musicians, forming “The Piamenta Band,” and were discovered by Stan “The Sound” Getz, an American jazz saxophonist who flew them to New York. Yosi Piamenta settled in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he lived for over 30 years, before returning to Israel.

By the time he was 25 years old, Piamenta began to don tefillin—and, of course, he played shows. In an interview with Cleveland Jewish Radio in 2004, Piamenta was asked about the identity and effect of “real” Jewish music, which “[got] to the heart of people with goodness,” as recalled during one of his shows in Crown Heights, Brooklyn during an all-night Simchat on the holiday of Sukkot.

“We waited until you came,” said the interviewer. “It didn’t start until you came.”

“I remember the days,” replied Piamenta, who became an Orthodox Jew. “We used to play from ten at night until five, six in the morning. Non-stop. One short break. It was marathon of music. All done by one band. And the crowd at the time got to over a hundred thousand people.”

For years, Piamenta, who had six children with his wife, Vivian (they married in London in 1977 and divorced in 2005) played weddings and bar mitzvahs to pay the bills, although he would also play gigs in Manhattan, the big time as it were. When Piamenta was 46, The New York Times covered a gig Piamenta and the Mizrahi Rockers played to a number of Orthodox men and women at the Aladdin Hotel in Woodbourne, NY, a Hasidic town in the Catskills. The title of the article? “Rocking All Night, In Hebrew.”

Jewish teen-agers with yarmulkes stuck firmly to their heads were diving off the stage in the Ali Baba room at the Aladdin Hotel, their fringes flying and their fists raised in joy…

”My father’s a rabbi in Denver, and he’s cool with this,” said Basi Twerski, 25, an elementary-school teacher in Brooklyn. ”Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, but most of the people here probably listen to rock radio and everything. This is just a way to do it that’s kosher.”

”The music is maybe a little scary to some people, but the message is kosher,” said Rebecca Lillian, 39, a rabbi from Skokie, Ill., who has been a Piamenta fan since the 1970’s, when she heard him in Israel.

Piamenta, whose nicknames (among others) were “The Hasidic Hendrix” and “The Sephardic Santana,” said: ”For 20 years I’ve been doing concerts for Jews, when really my thing is rock-and-roll,” Mr. Piamenta said, who often played yeshivas. ”I’m a Jewish rock-and-roller.”

Another noteworthy review of a Piamenta concert—actually this is more of an awe-inspired rave of the man—is by music writer Richard Gehr in the Village Voice in 1994:

It took me months to figure out what Yosi Piamenta’s right hand was doing when he played his guitar. With an unfiltered Players usually clasped between its fourth and fifth digits, the “Hasidic Hendrix”‘s paw seemed to strum the strings like a rhythm guitarist, yet wildly spiraling Arabic melodies spun up and away out of all visual relationship–screwed-tight Oriental outbursts punctuated by distant echoes of the electric-guitar pantheon, from Clapton to Zappa to Mahavishnu John. What was going on? Suddenly last week it became clear: Piamenta was picking leads on his battered old Fender as though it were an electric oud. Bubbling underneath his screaming, fleet-fingered solos lay a few thousand years of Arabic technique picked up as a fourteenth-generation Sephardic Jerusalemer.

Later in the essay, Gehr compares the scene at a Hasidic wedding with a chock-a-block Lower East Side show, both of which Piamenta played:

Not that you can exactly grok the Hasidic wedding scene without experiencing one. Attending to their festivities with a transcendent communal fervor shared by ravers, Sufis, punks, and voodoo practitioners. The Lubavitch men-folk in particular tend to party on the cusp of the millenium, slamming bodies against one another with intimate violence and throwing fists in the air in some timeless mosh pit of the spirit. Onstage, Yosi stands in portly, bearded, Garcia-esque repose, calmy driving his audience into a freylekh frenzy as children wander underfoot, rabbis kibitz, and the occasional guest vocalizes a favorite tune amid the circle dances, clattering crockery, and general abandon. (On the other side of the room, separated by a white wicker fence, daughters and wives have just as much fun working up line dances.) Having attended such events recently, I was struck by an admission of Craig Horowitz, who set the stage for his account of Lubavitch spiritual politics in last week’s New York by observing, “They danced and celebrated with such unbridled joy and raw emotion that I felt embarrassed to be watching.”

If Yosi had been transcending time and genre onstage, Horowitz might have been more inclined to plunge into the intensity. Last Monday night, Pimienta played at his keyboardist’s Lubavitch wedding. On Tuesday, the Knitting Factory was packed with young Hasids thrilled to catch him in a more informal setting. In addition to Yosi’s flutist brother, Avi (a zealous Jerusalem Lubavitcher who concluded the show with a brief commercial for the Moshiach), this latest version of the Piamenta band integrates the recently formed, unorthodoxly orthodox Hasidic New Wave ensemble, consisting of Israeli drummer Shlomo Deshet and bassist Bentzi Gafni of the local fusion band Esta, Frank London, and saxophonist Gregory Wall.

Around 2008, Piamenta moved back to Israel to be with his father, Yehuda, who had asked him to return. In 2014, Piamenta played for IDF troops in Israel at the Gaza border. Earlier this year, Piamenta, who had released 18 studio albums, fell ill and was put into a medically-induced coma. But he pulled through.

And here he is performing in late 2014:

A funeral for Piamenta was held on Sunday night in Brooklyn, and he will be buried in Israel on Monday.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.