Rocking and rolling back the years

Drummer for the stars, Meir Yisrael, sparks a partial Tamuz reunion this week.

Meir Yisrael: Arik [Einstein] is the key to everything. He opened the door for the rest of us.  (photo credit: YONI SHERMAN)
Meir Yisrael: Arik [Einstein] is the key to everything. He opened the door for the rest of us.
(photo credit: YONI SHERMAN)
“Mr. Israeli Rock,” it is Meir Yisrael. The 66-year-old drummer has been around since the dawn of the genre in this country and is still merrily pounding the skins with his own group, or behind such leading lights of the local pop-rock scene as Shlomo Artzi.
Yisrael has been there and done that over a long – and counting – career that began over half a century ago. Some of that experience, antics and ensuing colorful anecdotal asides will find their way into the “Noten Barock” show scheduled for Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv on March 1 at 10 p.m. “Noten Barock” means “Give in the Rock” in Hebrew, but is really a play on the expression noten barosh, which means something along the lines of “let rip.”
Yisrael has been doing the rounds of the country with his quartet of guitarist-vocalist Eyal Ben Hamoriya, bassist Micha Michaeli and keyboardist Yoav Silberstein. But Friday’s slot will be something of a special occasion. In addition to his regular pals in instrumental arms, the show will feature guest appearances by Yehuda Eder and Eitan Gidron, with Yisrael talking about the evolution of the Israeli rock scene over the years.
In case you haven’t been in this country for over 40 years, or simply aren’t old enough to have been around in the mid-70s, back then Yisrael, Eder and Gidron were part of this country’s seminal rock band, Tamuz, which also included keyboardist-vocalist and sometime trumpeter Ariel Silber, and guitarist-vocalist Shalom Hanoch. Tamuz, sadly, only put out one LP, and lasted just a couple of years before the fun and the band dissipated, primarily because Silber’s artistic line began to go in different directions.
In fact, Yisrael’s earliest musical recollections are of a very different ilk.
“Both my parents were born in Greece... I was brought up, in early infancy, on Greek music,” he says. This was not just a matter of gathering around the radio set and catching numbers by the likes of Manos Hadjidakis and Apostolos Kaldaras. The Yisrael family was truly into the music.
“We lived in a house on Levinsky Street (in South Tel Aviv) with a big yard, the drummer recalls. “All the Greek Israelis, our extended family, and lots of others would come over to us every Shabbat, every Friday, every Jewish religious holiday and every Christian holiday. And on Erev Pessah [Passover] we would have something like 70 or 80 people over.”
Naturally, the vittles side of the gatherings would be the first item on the agenda, but then the serious stuff began.
“After the meal, everything would be cleared from the tables. Then my uncles would get out their guitars and everyone would start playing and singing Greek songs. That music and the Greek language are part of who I am to this day – part of my core.”
THE YOUNGSTER grew up and soon began to tune into more contemporary, commercial songs, from a very different culture and with a very different vibe. Back then, in the early-mid 1960s, in terms of Western pop and rock, Israel was a remote backwater far away from where the real action was happening, primarily in Britain and the States.
The airwaves were ruled by French chansons and Russian-laced numbers penned by the likes of Sasha Argov and Mordehai Zeira, which pertained to the “old and beautiful Israel” body of musical works, with the odd Yemenite-tinged song. Unless you happened to run into, say, a crewman from abroad from a freight ship docked at Haifa Port, you were highly unlikely to have any idea of what was currently going down in London, Liverpool or New York.
However, Lady Luck was on Yisrael’s side when he was around 12 years old.
“I was listening to the radio when I heard something that just blew me away,” he says. He doesn’t remember which number it was, but he certainly knows the band.
“I heard this beat, this amazing beat, and I listened to the end of the song and waited for the DJ to say the name of the group. He said it was ‘the Beatles.’” In those days all foreign bands names were translated into Hebrew. No one called the Fab Four “the Beetelz”; here they were called Hipushiyot Haketzev (the Beat Beetles). The play on the name and the intentional misspelling of Beatles couldn’t be transliterated.
This was 1964, a couple of years after the mop-top foursome worked their way out of the Cavern basement joint in Liverpool and hit the wide world. By then they were playing to houses and stadia jam-packed with screaming teenaged girls, while over on Levinsky Street, Greek ballads were still the order of the familial day.
For Yisrael, there was no turning back. He’d actually already strayed from the Greek musical straight and narrow.
“I was into Cliff Richard and The Shadows. I wasn’t into Elvis,” he notes. “I saw them play at the Tel Aviv Cinema on Pinsker Street.” But the Beatles had a far more powerful effect on him. “The DJ had been to London, and he’d heard about the Beatles there,” says the shaggy-haired drummer. “I wanted to hear more of their songs but you couldn’t find their records here anywhere.”
LUCKILY, Yisrael had an uncle who lived in the States. He was on a visit to Israel at the time and he promised to send his starry-eyed nephew a Fab Four record as soon as he got back home. He was true to his word and, within a few weeks, Yisrael and his shining piece of vinyl were the hottest thing on the block. “Everyone used to come over to listen to the record,” he laughs.
It wasn’t just the sound of the Mersey Beat that grabbed the lad. It was the look, too.
“I opened up the record cover and I saw a picture of the band. There was John [Lennon] and Paul [McCartney] on the right, and George [Harrison] on the other side. And then I looked up and I saw the drum kit, with Ringo [Starr], on a raised level.” It was an epiphanous moment. “I looked at everything in the picture and then I saw the bass drum, with “Beatles” written on the front. It was a mystical experience for me; I felt as if I was being sucked into the bass drum. At that moment I shouted to my sister, ‘I want drums!’ That changed my life.”
A few months later, Yisrael celebrated his bar mitzvah and his parents duly bought him a drum kit. That might have spelled trouble for the neighbors, but Yisrael’s dad had the requisite skills to obviate any neighborly strife. “My dad was a master carpenter and he soundproofed my room with wood,” Yisrael chuckles.
The kid was into it from the start and spent far more time with drum sticks in his hands than exercise books. He says he knew drumming was going to be his life from the get go.
“I wasn’t good at school; it didn’t interest me. I was lucky they threw me out and I could spend all my days playing the drums. I learned every line, every riff, all the words of the Beatles songs on the record – not that I understood what I was singing. That sound became a part of me.”
Yisrael soon found himself gigging all over the country. His first time out as a professional drummer was at the age of 13 when a guitarist, who was later to become Yisrael’s brother-in-law, asked for his help. Yisrael had been honing his nascent skills for about six months.
“He told me their regular drummer had another show and he begged me to sit in, even if I didn’t play. You know, they had a contract, which included a drummer.” The youngster initially turned him down, repeated protestations notwithstanding. “I thought I wasn’t good enough, but I eventually agreed. That was just a couple of days before the gig.”
At the event, Yisrael produced the goods and the band members asked him to carry on with them. It was a good start to Yisrael’s professional learning curve.
“We played everywhere for about half a year, but I eventually got fed up with the smell of the food – they’d always take us into the auditoria through the kitchens – and I didn’t like wearing a bow tie.”
YISRAEL MAINTAINED his career path and before he was out of his teens, he’d anchored a bunch of bands, including Hashedim Ha’adumim (The Red Devils); The Beat Bells, which Yisrael says was “the nearest we could get to the Beatles”; HaNezirim (The Monks); and Hatzameret Hasignonot (The Style Tops). The latter segued into Uzi and The Styles, after leading vocalist Uzi Fuchs. It was a highly successful venture – an ill-fated foray to London notwithstanding – that even produced an English-language single that made it into the British pop charts in the late 1960s.
The drummer went through a slew of acts, including The Brandy James Trio, a threesome with Danny Sanderson – later of Kaveret fame – and Shlomo Gronich. He subsequently landed a berth with iconic singer Arik Einstein, whom Yisrael dubs “the forefather of Israeli rock.”
“He was the first one to perform rock in Hebrew. There would have been nothing without Arik.”
Israeli pop and rock fans who make it over to Tmuna Theater on Friday should have themselves a right royally entertaining time of it, with more than a modicum of edification thrown in. The repertoire will take in a bunch of nuggets, including “Tzlil Mechuvan,” written by stellar rock guitarist Yitzhak Klepter, one from the Tamuz stable, and “Oof Gozal,” one of Einstein’s signature numbers that Yisrael sings in the show. “I have to sing that; it’s a song that is close to my heart,” he says.
“People won’t hear the whole story of Israeli rock,” says Yisrael. “There so much to it. But Arik is the key to everything. He opened the door for the rest of us.” Friday’s show is also an opportunity for the evergreen drummer to get together with his old pals.
“It’s great to have Yehuda and Eitan on board. They are doing this show for love, not money. It’s been 45 years since we started Tamuz. The world has changed so much over the years, but we still have the music.”
For tickets and more information: (03) 561-1211 and