Yehudah Katz gives thanks

The former leader of Jewish spiritual rockers Reva L’Sheva returns at age 59 with a modern sounding solo debut album.

Yehuda Katz 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yehuda Katz 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Whoever coined the phrase ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ never met Yehudah Katz. At the age of 59, the one-time mainstay of the Jewish Hassidic rockers Reva L’Sheva, is releasing his debut solo album Not Without You (Biladech Lo Avo) and embarking on a musical path that is both familiar and brand new.
In the 15 years since Katz founded Reva L’Sheva, which effortlessly combined the spiritual and musical loves of his life – Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and The Grateful Dead – the Jewish rock scene has exploded.
Everyone from The Moshav Band to Soul Farm to Matisyahu have updated the classic hassidic rock sound with their own footprints, and Katz, one of the pioneers in the field, is energized by the possibilities.
“I’m surprisingly excited about the new music I’m making. I didn’t realize when the process began just how exciting it would be for me,” said Katz this week on his way to rehearsals for two upcoming album release shows – on Saturday night at the Yellow Submarine with special guests Shaanan Street and Koby Oz, and Monday night at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv with guests Oz and Roi Levy.
He was talking about songs like “Hodu,” the album’s first single, a spirited acoustic sing-along that jumpstarts folk and world music elements into the crisp production aura of the 21st century. According to Katz, that was the goal of the project when he returned to the studio after many years, and he thanks producer Gilad Vatal, once of Shotei Nevua (Fools of Prophecy) for creating the fusion between new and old that permeates the album.
“Carmi Wurtman [music promoter and manager] said to me when we started recording, let’s bring in a younger guy who can take the rawness and spiritual feeling of your folk rock and make it ‘achshavi’ (current),” said Katz, who immigrated to Israel with his wife in 1993 from Los Angeles.
“So we brought in Gilad and played him 23 songs I had ready and he put them into his cooking pot and really twisted them around without losing their true essence, directing them to a real modern context and the album is what came out. I think he really succeeded in his task.
He was not only being respectful of me as an artist, but the music spoke to him and he wanted the music to speak to everyone, so he broadened the appeal.”
The songs include many Katz originals, two co-written with Shotei Hanevua’s Roi Levy, some Carlebachinspired tunes and four songs by Katz’s friend and the album’s executive producer Bob Stark which got the whole project rolling.
WHILE NEVER giving up his music career entirely, Katz spent the last few years concentrating on running Project Neshima under the auspices of Artists and Musicians for Israel (AMI), which offers creative educational workshops using music and art to help strengthen Jewish identity and promote unity among Israeli youth.
“I was spending most of my time teaching the workshops, but I would do a fair amount of solo acoustic shows, sometimes with my percussionist Nadav Serling,” said Katz.
“Then Bob, who’s a businessman in Cleveland, came to me a couple years ago and said he had some songs he wanted me to hear. I finally heard them and said, ‘ok, what do you want me to do with them?’ He said ‘I want you to Katz-ify them.’” It took some time, but Katz finally went into the studio and recorded four of the songs.
“I added in bridge sections, and rearranged the songs totally taken them from a 1960s Hassidic song festival vibe to the kind of music I play.”
Later on, Stark presented Katz with one more song, the blueprint for “Hodu” whose traditional lyrics Stark had added music to.
“I didn’t really connect to it at first – it sounded kind of like a Four Seasons song. But then Bob told me he had written the music while undergoing treatment for cancer, and I said, ‘ok, I’ll find a way to connect to it.’” He finally found the groove he was looking for when Serling played him a video of the Peter Gabriel song “In Your Eyes” that he performed with Poppa Wemba.
“I listened to it and said ‘that’s it!’ Obviously, we changed it a lot but the song inspired up to feel how our song was supposed to feel,” said Katz.
For the spirited video of the song, Stark suggested that Katz recruits a group of Ethiopian immigrants to appear, an idea Katz adopted after reading the story earlier this year of how Ethiopian students were not being allowed to attend a school in Petah Tikva “I told Gilad that we’re going to bring in a bunch of Ethiopian guys and show the world how beautiful they are and how proud we are of our Ethiopian brothers,” said Katz.
“Bob flew in for the shoot, and we had these four Ethiopian guys, and they were kind of shy at first. They come walking down a little path outside on camera and Bob yells out, ‘ok, everybody come here!’ “The director looks to me as if to say ‘who’s this guy?’ I kept quiet and listened to Bob say, ‘You know, I wrote this song when I was dying of cancer, and was so weak I had to crawl out of bed. I was in a pit.’ He looked in each of their eyes and said, ‘Do you know what it’s like to be in a pit and then get out?’ “With trepidation and commitment at the same time, they shook their heads. And he said, ‘well, start showing it to the world how you feel.’ And from then on, there was fire. The scene at the end of all of us dancing and rejoicing is so real and natural. I was so honored to be part of something like that, where Kibbutz Galyulot (the ingathering of the exiles) was taking place right there.”
THE UPCOMING shows highlighting the new album may have a similar feel to them, with disparate talents like Hadag Nahash’s Street and cultural icon Oz sharing the stage with Katz and his crack world music band. For Katz, political views and world outlooks take a back seat to the purity of the music and the people making them.
“Shaanan and I have very different outlooks on many different aspects of life,” said Katz. “I live in Tekoa, and he won’t travel to the shtachim [territories] but the thing I love about him is that he’s a real person and he really cares. For example, when I called him to participate in Project Neshima, I said to him, ‘I don’t know if you heard but 37% of Israeli teens don’t identify themselves as Jewish.’ He asked what he could do, and I explained what we were doing in the schools and he said ‘I’m in.’ “I know that Shaanan cares about the world, and whatever he’s writing about, he cares deeply. Maybe it’s easier for him to get on a stage with me than for me to appear with his group, but when I asked, he right away said yes.
The same with Kobi Oz, who’s a real professional and a great talent. We worked together before on the Ani Yehudi project earlier this year which had 15 religious and secular performers singing with each other.”
The concept of reconciliation and closing gaps is at the forefront of Katz’s music and emerges as the theme of the new album. And he hopes the album and his shows, which will continue past the album release events, will do its small part in achieving some repair to Israel’s fractious society.
“This band and style of music affords me with the opportunity to have a deeper relationship with the audience - not just having them come for a good time – but to go deeper,” he said. “I’m hoping people will come away saying ‘wow! We can all be celebrating and elevating under the same roof, even though I can look around and see that you’re really different than I am.”
If that message spread, it would indeed be something to thankful for.