Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

10 February 1994

Yosi Piamenta

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.

I was happily introduced to 42-year-old Yosi ( Yosef) Piamenta last spring by one of his frequent bandmates on the Hasidic wedding circuit, Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London. Piamenta is a crossover star in the international Hasid community, a unique and highly desired bandleader who performs at some hundred weddings each year both here and abroad. The son of an Israeli war hero, Piamenta received his first guitar as a bar mitzvah present. Today he's a baal t'shuve who returned to the orthodox flock about sixteen years ago, and a respected presence among the small yet increasingly significant local community of orthodox Jewish hipsters.

Pimienta devotes no less musical and religious fervor to his note-for-note Hebrew cover version of Men at Work's "Down Under" than he does to his wedding music, or such homemade productions as A Medley of Chassidic Hits (1982), Mitzvah! (1984 vinyl), Tismach (1988 cassette), 1990 (1989), and especially Songs of the Rebbes (1992)--bearing variations on the theme of "Please do not play this record on the Shabbat or Holidays," they are available at Kingston Avenue record shops in Crown Heights, and through Holyland Music, 4722 18th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11204.) Like some acid-rock successor to Yemenite chanteuse Ofra Haza's Fifty Gates of Wisdom , Songs of the Rebbes weaves different strains of Hasidic music (e.g., Belz, Kaliv, Lubavitch, Ger) into arm-pumping medleys that convey a fairly accurate represention of what you'd hear at one of his wedding gigs.

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.

While the two settings' good vibes weren't actually all that different, the soloing at the club was a lot more revealing. Yosi's original music delves deep into the Sephardic-Oriental tradition, as heard by someone weaned on singer Oum Kalsoum and Arabic composer Abdel Wahab, and filtered through the musical breakthroughs of late Hendrix and early Weather Report; fusion and prog-rock seem natural extensions of the technical expertise that already constitutes such a large part of the Jewish musical tradition, and the spiritual party perogative persists.

Yosi and the members of Hasidic New Wave, however, considered this show a mere rehearsal, and the guitarist's religious and musical journey, needless to say, goes on. The next day, for example, when I visited his Canarsie home, I heard a tape of the previous evening booming from the living room as I climbed the stairs. "My Dad will be done praying in a few minutes," said his son. I glanced into the living room. There was Yosi, facing the wall, shrouded in tallis and t'efillen, davening maharis.

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