Freewheelin’ it down Allenby Street

After 16 years in London, Israeli musician Omri Vitis comes home.

By INBAL AHARONI
October 2, 2013 22:17
Omri Vitis

Omri Vitis. (photo credit: Mark Shapira)

Allenby Street. Morning buses lumber down the lanes. People scurry to make their stations.

Omri Vitis rides his bicycle down the sidewalk.

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“I just came from Holon,” he explains, where he lives with his wife and his 2-year-old son. “I like riding; I write music when I ride.”

Vitis, 42, is here to talk about his new album Dreamers; his partners in music, the HolyBand; and his upcoming Israeli concert tour, which opens on October 4 with a show at the Barby in Tel Aviv. But mostly he is here to talk about his passion – music.

To him, it is all about the melodies, Vitis says. He hears them in his head. He does not know where they come from.

“The way the music comes to me is like a vision, suddenly I hear a melody and it comes from somewhere, or from nowhere, sometimes it comes from thin air – and I pick it up,” he explains. “It’s so powerful, it really is such a powerful experience that I get carried away.”

Even as he talks, Vitis says, the melodies are running through his head. “There is another channel so that when I write a new song – and when I say write, I mean hear – I’m not sitting down writing. The first thing I do is record it on my phone. Then if there’s a strong enough melody, I will sit down with a guitar as soon as I can and pick out the chords.”

And while he does not know where the melodies come from, Vitis does know that creativity is in his blood. “My grandmother was a singer, my grandfather was a [stage] actor. My father was a singer,” he says, “so it kinds of runs in the family, that tendency.”

A Kibbutz Dalia native, Vitis says the kibbutz lifestyle was an influence on his burgeoning love of music. “It is something that is very tiny and small within me, but it is very, very deep and goes way back to childhood,” he says. “Growing up in that house, you know, and listening to a lot of music that my parents brought – records at the time.” Music, Vitis says, was a “very deep need,” one he refers to as his “only refuge.”

“Growing up in the kibbutz there isn’t much privacy,” Vitis says. “Kids are always surrounded by kids. I would go home and then, when I needed time to sort everything out, I would put headphones over my ears and sit in the corner and listen to an album.”

Vitis’ influences were varied, and he peppers stories with references to artists he listened to on his parents’ LPs – Greek singer Maria Farantouri, The Golden Gate Quartet, Odetta, and Mercedes Sosa. Vitis laughs as he tells of singing along to The Beatles, and teenage adulation of rockers like Bryan Adams and the boss, Bruce Springsteen.

Of course there were folksters Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and Joan Baez, and Israeli artists Arik Einstein and Matti Caspi. Vitis even sings the praises of the Hebrew musical score for Babar the Elephant, which he says he loved as a kid.

After completing his IDF service as a combat engineer, Vitis spent a year picking apples to save up money to travel. Then he took off for London, where he spent 16 years honing his musical skills.

“The background of the music I listened to as a child is important, because five or six years ago, all of that came out of me in a very direct way, at a rather late age,” Vitis explains. “It took me a long time to realize that those melodies I was hearing actually made a lot of sense, and they could make sense to other people as well.”

Over the years in London, Vitis says, “I grew more and more confident in the melodies I heard.”

At one point, he was in a rock band. But then Vitis decided that he was going to focus on his music in a way he had not done before. “I moved into a tiny bedsit,” he remembers. “I spent my days practicing guitar and writing songs and going for walks in the park at Hampstead Heath.”

Looking back, he says, “I lived almost like a monk in an urban environment.” In the evenings, he would go out and hone his craft in front of audiences. “I knew where all the open mic stages were, and I just put my guitar on my back and I would get on my bike and cycle to wherever that place was.”

In 2010, Vitis returned to Israel, bringing his UK ensemble – the HolyBand – back with him. Its members have changed, but the music and spirit remain the same. Vitis describes them as “roots of gospel, American folk, Middle Eastern folk, Eastern European influences, with a bit of extra ethnic, tribal feel.”

Since returning to Israel, things have been happening for Vitis. He recently teamed up with Ehud Banai, opening for him in Israel, and touring with him in the UK. He’s been signed by a German record producer, and has another project underway with German bands Zollner and Sohne (Mannheims). Vitis has also started an Israeli grunge band, Hapa’amonim.

As he sips on coffee, sitting on a red stool in a quaint bakery/cafe on Allenby Street, Vitis reflects. He says he is grateful to be back in his native land, where he feels the support of family and friends.

“If I went looking for anything abroad, I was looking for myself, and basically I found it,” Vitis says.

“When you’re trying to make it and you look for things on the outside, you eventually find what’s inside, and this really happened to me in England. I’m happy to come back with that kind of maturity and to work here in Israel.”

The HolyBand’s debut album, Dreamers, will be released in Israel on October 4, the night of the show at the Barby.

Tickets to Omri Vitis and the HolyBand run NIS 100- 110 and can be purchased via the Barby ticket office at: (03) 518-8123. To learn more about Omri Vitis, visit http://omrivitis1.bandcamp.com/, or follow him on Facebook.

• By INBAL AHARONI


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