Yitzhak Attias “has the whole world in his hands,” to borrow a phrase from the perennial spiritual.
The world in question is a highly eclectic range of musical strands, from all manner of disciplines and cultural origins, which the Gibraltar-born Jerusalemite percussionist weaves into his music.
There is ample evidence of that multipronged sonic attack in Attias’s latest release Reshimu, in which various influences emerge, from Sixties rock to flamenco and from hassidic nigunim to Latin rhythms; and even some Celtic coloring.
Considering Attias’s upbringing and formative cultural and geographical milieu, that is only natural, although it was a musician from a very different part of the world, and artistic ethos, who first sparked Attias’s enthusiasm for laying hands on skins.
“I have a friend, Joe Levy, who played drums. He lives in Toronto now and he plays mainly jazz. So I thought of becoming a drummer. But then I saw the percussionist of [late Sixties-early Seventies glam rock group] T Rex,” recalls Attias.
“He had long hair and he was playing congas, and that really attracted me.”
The said skin pounder was Steve Peregrin Took, but it was another more percussion- centric band, from the other side of the Atlantic, who really fired the teenaged Attias’s imagination.
“I was also in love with [Latin rock band] Santana’s music. Their music really described some kind of internal world I was getting in touch with then. The percussion they had, and the idea of touching skin with my hands, and producing music was much appealing that hitting a drum with a stick.”
The – literal – hands-on approach does it for Attias. “When I play percussion it is about the way I hit [the skin] with my hand, where my hands are and the part of the hand I use, and all that helps me make very different sounds.”
Attias started out on congas but, in the intervening four decades plus, he has accumulated – and continues to do so – an amazing array of instruments and contraptions.
Over half of the intimately proportioned security room which serves as Attias’s music-making space is taken up by congas and all kinds of drums and percussion instruments, including a large round South American goatskin drum, a handsome gong and all kinds of shakers, quite a few of which are homemade.
“Hey! Listen to this,” says the musician. I hear a multilayered velvety yet clinking sound which, as I turn around, I see emanates from a piece of cloth-covered wood with dozens of keys hanging from it. I made this myself.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?” proffers Attias with a smile. It does indeed. “And I like the sound this makes,” he suddenly says, reaching for an udu sitting on a shelf behind me. Attias takes the bottle-shaped clay drum, with an air hole on one side, and begins producing a soft alluring beat. “It’s an African instrument I love playing. You play with air on this.”
ATTIAS MAY be doing his best to imbue our aural existence with captivating and energizing sounds, but he says he also craves silence.
He lives with his family at the edge of the Jerusalem Forest.
“The forest has accompanied me for the last 21 years,” he says. Looking for places to get away from the noise of everyday life has been a lifelong quest for the percussionist.
“When I was a child I went to school in England, Carmel College, and I used to take walks [in the forest] there too.”
The college was an exclusive Jewish boarding school located in a beauty spot in Oxfordshire next to the River Thames. Some of his initial tentative percussive exploration fed off the guitar playing and vocals of an older student who was to become an international star.
“I remember David Broza and his pals playing there,” recalls Attias. “I had bongos with me, and I was much younger than them, but I’d try to play along. I was only 13 or 14 at th e time.”
Growing up in Gibraltar presented the young Attias with an expansive tapestry of sounds and rhythms to feed off.
“Yeah, I heard the Beatles, and pop and rock music as a kid, but there were just so many things around me,” he says.
“Gibraltar is a sort of multicultural place.
Of course, you have the British influence, so I got all that pop and rock of the time, but there is also the Spanish influence. Flamenco is a strong element in what I do.” That comes through strongly on Reshimu. “There are very complex rhythms in flamenco. You have to work hard at that.”
Attias’s eyes and ears were constantly scanning the horizon and beyond, trying to catch sounds from as-yet-unexplored domains.
“Back then they didn’t use the phrases ‘ethnic music’ or ‘world music,’ but I was drawn to African or Brazilian music. I loved the texture. I remember looking out of my window at home, across the sea to Morocco and wondering what there was beyond the mountains there. Whereas my friends would be listening to bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath I was listening to Santana.
There was also a [late Sixties Afro pop] band called Osibisa. I was really into them, and into other bands that described landscapes other than cities and towns in Britain and America.”
There was already a less tangible appeal to Attias’s music of choice back then. “[Santana guitarist] Carlos Santana was going through this whole spiritual path and I was going through something like that too,” notes the Jerusalemite. “I felt he was describing what I was experiencing too. I was also reading a lot of books by [Nobel Prize-winning writer] Herman Hesse. My attraction to Santana, for instance, was always about more than ‘just’ the music, I was also trying to find my way through my busy music world and music helped me express that.”
Having nurtured his incipient musical skills, along with his emotional development, Attias soon opted out of high school and at the age of 17 he found himself playing gigs back in Gibraltar. “That was great,” he says. “I felt I had really made it. It was great fun .”
BUT THE avenue to spiritual fulfillment was always high on Attias’s evolutionary agenda, and he soon reconnected with his roots. “I wanted to e x p r e s s s o m e t h i n g that I called then a Jewish biblical feeling. I was looking for that.
The years flew by and I carried on reading and writing poems, and trying to find my way. I had friends who went searching in the east, in India, but for me I believed there was something in Judaism that was not being expressed.”
Eventually, Attias hit the religious mind-set on the head. “I met the teachings of Rav Nahman [of Breslov]. His teachings have a lot to do with music, the mystical part of music, and the prophetic power of music. I read his stories, which were absolutely magical, and I thought they were very deep, and that I think really began my interest in trying to see if I could commit myself to a more engaged and active Jewish life.”
Meanwhile, Attias’s musical odyssey continued un- abated and, after making aliya around 30 years ago, he began working with a wide range of musicians, here and abroad, i n c l u d i n g A r g e n t i n - ean-born Jer u s a l e m i t e multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Yehuda Glantz, and fellow Gibraltarian and now New York-based guitarist Eli Massias. Both Glantz and Massias contributed to Attias’s debut release as leader, Gather the Sparks, which came out over two decades ago. Attias was also part of Yehuda Katz’s Reva LeSheva band from 1999 to 2006.
He admits that his eclectic approach does not help his marketing efforts.
Although he has done an abundance of session work, with all kinds of musicians, Reshimu is his first album under his own name since Gather the Sparks.
It has been four and a half years in the making, primarily due to budgetary constraints, but the prolonged gestation period has begotten a fine offering, with a highly capable lineup that includes some A-list musicians from a broad spectrum of genres. Massias is, once again, on board, with leading jazz pianist Ofer Portugali and jazz bassist Yorai Oron, as is jazz and classical pianist and composer Yaron Gottfried, who is also a former conductor of the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra. Internationally acclaimed jazz-ethnic music oboist and English horn player Yoram Lachish is also in the fray, as is Attias’s flutist wife, Tamar Lauffer Attias, long-time member of the Tofa’ah band and a session musician.
There are, naturally, references in Reshimu to Attias’s beloved Jerusalem Forest, in the album opener “Heather Glade” and in the Hebrew closing track “Baya’ar Ben Hashmashot” and, most touchingly, in the recording of birds chirping in the Jerusalem Forest at dawn on “Anhelo” (“I yearn”). Betwixt and between there are songs in Spanish and hassidic-seasoned numbers, while the title track appears to reference early Seventies fusion with just a hint of Chick Corea from that period, while Avi Singolda’s electric sitar adds a heady whiff of India to the richly textured proceedings. Attias’s velvety vocals enhance the sonic output throughout.
Attias may be struggling to stake a market sector claim for his music but feels he has to stay true to himself. “I play music out of love. I will stick to it, and it will work out in the end. I have to be honest.
I am always searching for what sounds right to me, for what I want to express.”Yitzhak Attias can be contacted at [email protected] or via his website, www.yitzhakattias.com