Try to imagine a guitarist from the dusty back streets of Mahaneh Yehuda making the big time on the global market. Could a wide-eyed youngster from, say, the down-market end of Jerusalem find himself ripping it up for a rock concert audience in some stadium?
While Shlomo Mizrachi may not have made it that big – and certainly didn’t do his thing in front of tens of thousands of flower-power-fueled kids over at Yasgur’s Farm in Upstate New York back in August 1969 – the Jerusalem-born rock musician made a name for himself for replicating the spirit, sound and technique, of one of the rock world’s true greats. “People called me the Israeli Jimi Hendrix,” Mizrachi chuckles when we meet at a Jaffa Road café, just a stone’s throw from the shuk (outdoor market) and his childhood home.
Jimi Hendrix in Jerusalem
On July 28, Mizrachi will show us just why he earned that impressive title when he performs covers of some of Hendrix’s best-known numbers at the Silo eatery grounds in Jerusalem’s First Station complex, as the annual Jerusalem Woodstock Revival Festival takes in its first post-COVID-19 bow.
When the Woodstock rock festival – aka the pretty mawkish Woodstock Music and Art Fair – took place, and half a million people made the trek to the rural spot for what turned out to be the biggest event the music world had ever seen, Mizrachi was a member of the Habama Hahashmalit (The Electric Stage) rock band back here in Jerusalem.
Now a trim 73-year-old longtime resident of Tel Aviv, Mizrachi still finds himself regularly gigging up and down the country but is always delighted to find a reason for taking the bus eastward along Route 1. I was more than happy to provide a pretext for his jaunt to the capital. “I love Jerusalem,” he says. “This is where it all started for me.”
“I love Jerusalem. This is where it all started for me.”Shlomo Mizrachi
It all began in the unlikeliest of circumstances, and against all the social, ethnic and class structure odds. And, if all that wasn’t enough to deter any starry-eyed youngster from dreaming of following in the footsteps of Hendrix and his ilk, cold existential reality came along and unceremoniously slapped him in the face when he was still some way off from adulthood.
Anyone under the age of 30 who was born here or who made aliyah after the mid-nineties, will probably find it difficult to imagine the way things worked prior to the mass immigration from the Soviet Union. In the material standard of living sense, Israel lagged far behind the Western world and was largely a cultural backwater in regards to Western commercial music.
THAT WAS definitely the case in Jerusalem of the late 1950s-early 1960s, a long time before the Six Day War and the ensuing flood of youngsters from the States and western Europe who brought with them a whiff of the counterculture that had been in full flow for some years and, more importantly, the sounds and beat of American and British rock and pop bands.
Still, Mizrachi says, he had some inkling of what was going down on the other side of Israel’s then smaller geographic borders. “I used to listen to all sorts of music radio stations. We heard stuff.”
That “stuff” fired his nascent creativity, along with the odd guitarist he heard playing around town but it was very much a matter of getting things going under his own steam. “I made my first guitar himself. I crafted the right shape of wood and then I went to a hardware store and bought some thin iron thread. I attached the strings, stretched them and that was that.” Sounds simple enough. “I used to sit out on that balcony and jam,” he laughs pointing to a fourth-floor apartment on a nearby side street.
Mizrachi says he just had to manage with what he had. “I am an autodidact. I learned to play the guitar on my own and I read a lot.” The need for self-education grew exponentially after his father died – when Mizrachi was only 13 – and as the oldest child he left school and took over the running of the family grocery store.
Despite the new heavy responsibility on his young shoulders, Mizrachi was determined to maintain his artistic evolution. “I kept in touch with my classmates after I left school, and we played all sorts of gigs,” he recalls.
He was clearly going places and was eager to lap up any information he could lay his hands, and ears, on. He once told a graphic tale about how walking through the shuk one day, he heard the squawk of a chicken being slaughtered. He immediately started figuring out how to reproduce the same sonic texture on his guitar. “That led me to something like distortion,” he says. “I showed it to the other guys in the band and told them that was the future of rock guitar, but they didn’t like it.” It also provided the feral inspiration for a number Mizrachi called “Blues for Jerusalem and the Slaughtered Hen.”
The American students he hooked up with, in 1968, in the first Habama Hahashmalit lineup certainly liked it, and understood exactly where he was coming from. However, students tend to come and go and, eventually, the band turned into an all-Israeli affair and lasted until 1971.
Mizrachi didn’t have much luck on the recording front, and there is not much of his, or the band’s, music to listen to from those far-flung days. Still, he did get out and about, spending around seven years playing and recording around Europe, particularly in Amsterdam.
Started from the bottom
Over the years, he has also gained a reputation for writing evocative movie and TV soundtracks, which also feed off western classical music. Again, the latter is something Mizrachi took on board by his own devices.
For now, the evergreen septuagenarian is looking forward to the Woodstock Revival event, which also features the Grateful Shefa Band – naturally, doing covers of Grateful Dead charts – and the Wild Thing rock act playing a medley of instantly recognizable numbers that were performed at the fabled 1969 festival.
For those of us who missed the first bash at Yasgur’s Farm, Thursday’s Silo get together should conjure up at least some of the spirit of those innocent halcyon days.
For tickets and more information: (054) 810-8918 and [email protected]