Woodstock by any other name

Legendary guitarist Shlomo Mizrachi reminisces about the glory years.

Shlomo Mizrachi. ‘I got into world music before they called it that.’ (photo credit: SHARON SHAPIRA)
Shlomo Mizrachi. ‘I got into world music before they called it that.’
(photo credit: SHARON SHAPIRA)
Shlomo Mizrachi is a natural fit as one of the frontliners of this year’s Jerusalem Woodstock Revival Festival, which will take place on Thursday at the Kraft Stadium.
For starters, the 65-year-old guitarist is one of the pioneers of rock music in this country. Add that to the fact he was born and bred in Jerusalem, and the neat matter of a sobriquet given to him by one of the titans of the American blues fraternity.
“In 1975 I played all over Israel, for a month, with Memphis Slim,” recalls Mizrachi, who will be backed by The Roots band in Jerusalem.
“We also played all over Europe. He’d say to me: ‘Hey Woodstock, play me that thing!’ I don’t know why he called me Woodstock, but it’s a good name.”
Mizrachi was a true trailblazer back in the ’60s. More than four decades ago, in terms of access to the commercial sounds created in the States and the UK, Israel was very much a cultural backwater. Long before the advent of the Internet and YouTube, it generally took a while for records to make it over here; youngsters with, say, a Beatles LP were a rarity.
Indeed, a few years back, veteran rock drummer Meir Yisrael told me he had an uncle in America who’d mail him Beatles records when they came out, and all the kids from Yisrael’s neighborhood would come over to his house to listen to the music of the Fab Four.
Mizrachi’s quest to get into Western grooves was even more challenged, because he grew up in Jerusalem – then a cultural world away from Tel Aviv. But while Yisrael had the latest pop and rock hits sent to him, Mizrachi had some of the Western world come to him.
“In 1968-1970, in those years this was a musical paradise,” he says surprisingly. “There were loads of people who came over here from the US and Britain, and they brought their music with them.”
It was around that time that the legendary group Habama Hahashmalit (The Electric Stage) emerged. The four members – with Eli Tobol on drums, bass guitarist Shalom Ben-Yakar and vocalist Dubi Almadea – all came from the downmarket side of Jerusalem, from neighborhoods like Musrara and Nahlaot. They eagerly imbibed the sounds and vibes the foreigners brought over here and, in the wake of the post-Six Day War euphoria that swept the country back then, particularly in Jerusalem, Habama Hahashmalit set the local scene alight.
“We played all kinds of numbers by [American and British rock and pop bands like] Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles and The Doors. There was an amazing buzz in Jerusalem back then,” says Mizrachi. Sadly, subsequent hostilities put an end to that. “The bubble burst with the Yom Kippur War,” he notes.
Even before the arrival of long-haired youngsters from the “real” Western world, Mizrachi says he started getting a handle on what was going down over there. “When [legendary guitarist] Jimi Hendrix made No. 1 in the US, with “All Along the Watchtower,” I remember turning the radio on at my mother’s house and hearing that song.
That really blew my mind. I’d heard Dylan sing it [Bob Dylan wrote the song], and I used to do an imitation of him singing and playing it, but when I heard Hendrix’s version I was stunned.”
Mizrachi really got into the rock scene in a big way, and was way ahead of most of his contemporaries – and the other Israeli members of Habama Hahashmalit. One of the bands that got Mizrachi going was popular early-’60s British guitar-based rock band The Shadows. “I remember seeing [lead guitarist] Hank Marvin playing his white Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, and I wanted one so much,” he says.
Considering he built the first guitar he owned, at the age of 13, that was something of an instrumental quantum leap.
The youngster was certainly motivated and eventually managed to get the readies together – the then-not inconsiderable sum of 1,100 lirot – and bought the object of his desire from a Tel Aviv music store, which specially imported two Stratocasters. It was time to show his pals something new.
“I also got some extra-special slim guitar strings,” says Mizrachi, “because I wanted to play bluesy stuff and distortion. I asked the other musicians to come over to my place. I turned the amplifier all the way up to 10, plugged the guitar in and let rip.”
Unfortunately, the other members of the band were more conservative than Mizrachi. “They weren’t impressed,” recounts the guitarist who, back then, earned the epithet “The Israeli Hendrix” for his instrumental prowess. “They said that maybe we should stick to the melodic stuff.”
But time, and the music, were marching on. Mizrachi’s exploits continued in the early ’70s with the Cape of Good Hope band, which included US-born singer Josie Katz – previously with the High Windows along with Arik Einstein and Shmulik Kraus, bassist Eli Magen, drummer Zohar Levy and guitarist Hanan Yovel. Those were heady times.
Mizrachi says he has always kept an open mind, and has spread his musical net far and wide over the years. “I got into world music before they called it that. I played mawals [Arabic music improvisation] in Sinai in 1973. [Rock star] Ehud Banai heard me do that and he said it influenced him.”
Stellar rock guitarist and vocalist Berry Sakharof is another leading light who took some of his inspiration from Mizrachi. “I also listened to Indian music and classical music,” Mizrachi continues. “I love Brahms.”
Mizrachi is keen to hand out kudos to others who helped kick-start, and sustain, the burgeoning Israeli rock scene of yesteryear. “There was a guy called Shaul Grossberg who produced tons of rock shows. He was a very important figure on the rock scene here. He deserves a lot of the credit for what developed in Israel at the time.” Grossberg also wrote about rock for local newspapers and magazines, and presented a weekly progressive rock radio show in the early ’70s.
“Those were good times,” adds Mizrachi with a whiff of nostalgia.
“It’ll be great to play in Jerusalem again at the festival.”
In addition to Mizrachi’s Hendrix covers slot, the sixth edition of the Jerusalem Woodstock Revival Festival will feature a Rolling Stones tribute courtesy of Mike Pery, Sharon Levy and the Brown Sugar band, along with fabled US-born singer Libi. Other tribute acts include Elijah and the Volunteers’ Jefferson Airplane show, featuring vocalist Miryam, an Eric Clapton and Cream program by Gal Nisman and the Full Trunk gang, and the Blues Rebels local supergroup.
Doors open on Thursday at 4:30 p.m., and while the guys and gals strut their stuff on the stage, there will be some non-musical fun on offer such as juggling acts and face painting.
For tickets and more information: (03) 613-3556, www.2bvibes.com/ tickets, *6226 and www.woodstock.revival.com