Buber's blues

Strauss may have begotten the country’s first Hebrew-language blues number, but his main avenue of expression is of a quintessentially universal nature.

Guitarist-vocalist Avner Strauss (photo credit: KOBI FARHI)
Guitarist-vocalist Avner Strauss
(photo credit: KOBI FARHI)
‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” noted Shakespeare with his usual sagacity. Whether he actively encouraged such public adoration is not known, but the mantle appears to have rested pretty easily.
While Avner Strauss would probably deferentially shrink from any comparison with the iconic 16th-century playwright, he appears happy enough with the local field-leading tag he earned over three decades ago.
“They called me ‘the father of Israeli blues,’” he notes with undisguised pride. “I wrote the first blues song in Hebrew. It was called “Yesh Li Telephone Ve’ein Li Im Mi Ledaber” (I’ve Got a Telephone But I’ve Got No One to Talk To).”
Perusing his recorded oeuvre and performance track record to date, it is not hard to appreciate why the 61-year-old guitarist-vocalist attracted such high praise. That should also come across in succinct manner at Strauss’s forthcoming gig at Beit Hayotzer, at the Tel Aviv Port, on July 15 (doors open 9:30 p.m., show starts 10 p.m.), as part of this year’s Tel Aviv Blues Festival. The show will also see the launch of Strauss’s latest album, For Friends Only.
In fact, Strauss has dipped into numerous areas of musical endeavor over his long career to date. As his debut record On a Slow Flame amply demonstrates, he has explored the mysteries and joys of flamenco, Indian music, rock and, further down the road of his artistic evolution, even Arabic music.
“I played sitar and oud,” he says, “but I don’t anymore.”
He probably does not need to. On “Keta Hodi” (An Indian Piece), for example, from the aforementioned 1979 release, Strauss proffers a creditable imitation of the nuances normally produced on sitar, on guitar, bending notes and eliciting intervallic subtleties one normally associates exclusively with the multi-stringed Indian instrument.
Strauss’s career is littered with surprising directional departures. Three years ago he released a two-CD offering by the name of Equator, with one disc called “Western Hemisphere” and the other “Eastern Hemisphere.” The former takes in rock, pop, flamenco, country and even a touch of classical music, while the Eastern-oriented section features sounds that hail from Persian, Muslim Spanish, Gypsy, African and Arabic climes, with the odd bluesy seasoning deftly stirred into the musical melting pot. As Equator culls from recordings made in studios and live over a 30-year period, it offers a neat overview of how Strauss’s artistic growth has panned out over the years.
Strauss may not look quite as bright-eyed and innocent as he did when he started out – who does? – and his voice may have taken on some accrued pockmarked timbres, which is often a boon for blues singers, but he retains a youthful zest for exploring uncharted territory.
Having started out in the rock and blues-oriented sector of the music business, in his mid-twenties he relocated to the United States and enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, an esteemed institution known for its jazz endeavor.
“It was a challenge to learn how to play jazz,” Strauss declares. “It was the only thing I didn’t know how to play.” His range includes “more serious” disciplines. “I wrote quite a few classical works, for orchestras.”
In fact, the initial impetus for setting his adolescent hands on a guitar was prompted by one of the greatest figures of 20th-century classical music.
“I received a record of [Spanish classical guitarist Andrés] Segovia and, of course, Bach’s “Chaconne” is a wonderful work. I couldn’t really read notes back then, but I’d look at the score and try to work out where to place my fingers, and I’d listen to how it came out on guitar. Slowly but surely I worked it out.”
Strauss also brings weighty familial baggage to his artistic enterprise. His father is octogenarian philosopher Micha Strauss, his granddad was German-born poet Ludwig Strauss and his great-grandfather was internationally renowned Vienna- born philosopher Martin Buber. Sadly, Strauss’s grandfather died shortly before the musician was born, but he did get to know Buber, who died when Strauss was 11.
“Yes, I remember him,” says the sexagenarian. “When he got invitations to lecture in Europe, my great-grandmother would go with him, and she’d being me back fantastic gifts like an electric train set. Back then, no kids in Israel had toys like that.”
Last year, to mark the 50th anniversary of Buber’s death, Strauss released a double album called Blues Ha’or Haganuz (The Hidden Light), referencing Buber’s well-known tome of the same name.
Strauss may have begotten the country’s first Hebrew-language blues number, but his main avenue of expression is of a quintessentially universal nature.
“I am primarily an instrumentalist,” he says. “A solo guitar record I made in 1990, called Courtyard, was acclaimed all over the world, including by [California- based magazine] Guitar Player.”
Indeed, the release is an instrumental force, with an eclectic spread of self-written material that feeds off numerous disciplines and sensibilities, including flamenco, jazz, blues, classical music and Middle Eastern textures.
Strauss not only plays both guitars that can be heard on Courtyard, he was also very much a one-man band, both on and off the stage. I pointed out a typographical error in one of the track names, where a capital letter appears in one of the English names of the numbers.
“I did everything myself,” he explains. “I did the cover design, too, and I used Letraset [sheets of transfer lettering],” he adds with a chuckle. “Other than the cover photo, I did everything solo.”
Lettering faux pas apart, the album is a fine specimen of top-notch musicianship, with Strauss also displaying impressive dexterity on bass, sitar, tabla, flutes and various bells.
Other than his three-year stint at Berklee, Strauss is very much a self-taught artist. The same goes for his entry into the world of blues. Soon after being entranced by the artistry of Segovia, he began to lend his tender ear to records by such blues titans as guitarist-singer Big Bill Broonzy and pianist Champion Jack Dupree.
“I used to go to the American Culture Center and listen to blues records there,” he recalls. “They had some treasures there.”
Before long, Strauss began replicating some of the sounds of rhythms he heard on those LPs, on guitar, and by the age of 17 he was getting the blues out there to a wider public. “It was around 1971 or 1972 that I organized the first blues evening in Israel – a chronology of blues, from 1920 to 1970, 50 years of the blues.”
He took his debut very seriously, together with a bunch of like-minded budding musicians.
“We did rehearsals for half a year, and the show [at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem] was packed out here,” says Strauss. He received some solid support for the project by an American called Gerald Cohen who had brought iconic blues man B.B. King to Israel the previous year.
A lot of water, and probably more mood-changing liquids, have passed under Strauss’s bridge since then, but the 61-year-old guitarist-singer is still doing his thing.
For more information: www.kvish61.org, www.avnerstrauss.com.