Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Channeling Louis Armstrong

It seemed like just an ordinary wedding band. That was until the band leader started channeling Louis Armstrong.

He was a short Yemenite man with a straggly beard, bushy gray payot (sidelocks), a red Bucharian-style kippa and, perhaps most remarkably in an already remarkable appearance, a bright red tallit swung over his shoulder - something more at home in the synagogue than on stage.

He sure didn't look like Louis Armstrong. But that voice...

"I see trees of green, red roses too. I see them bloom for me and you..."

No sooner had they finished the final notes of "What a Wonderful World" then the band segued into a spot-on rendition of Eric Clapton's "Layla," followed by a sax-laden version of 1980s New Wave sensation Men at Work's "Land Down Under" - but this time with Hebrew lyrics joyfully praising God. And then the band switched gears again and launched a Grateful Dead-inspired jam based on a particularly rousing Jewish wedding standard from the "Singing Rabbi," Shlomo Carlebach.

Now, Jody and I have been to a lot of weddings in our almost thirteen years in Israel and we've heard a lot of Jewish music played - from pure Klezmer to out and out rock and roll. But we stood dumbfounded by the range and repertoire of the five men on stage who, adding to the wonderful wackiness of the night, were by their garb clearly all religious. Not only that, they were mostly ultra-Orthodox.

Last time I checked, they don't teach the Beatles or Dire Straits in yeshiva. So where did they learn this stuff? I had to find out.

More than that, I wanted to know if this was the beginning of a trend - a combination of rock and tradition that signified the coming together of worlds, a healing of the too often fractious denominations within Judaism and Israel.

As the band took a break after cranking out the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," I approached the leader.

He immediately reached out and took both my hands in his, shaking them warmly.

"That was amazing," I started. "You guys really play great."

"Thank you, thank you," he said handing me his business card. Like his tallit, the card was completely done up in various shades of red. I looked down and read:

"Mati Harari. The Old Red. Music of All Types."

That was for sure.

Maybe it was the hot spiked punch, or perhaps I was just naturally high from the dancing, but I was feeling a bit more open than usual.

"So...where did you grow up, Mati?" I asked him. A good icebreaker I hoped and not too intrusive. Certainly not for Israel.

"Hadera," he replied referring to a small town on the Mediterranean coast a bit south of Haifa.

"You grew up religious?" I continued.

"Yes of course," he replied.


He knew where I was going. Undoubtedly, he'd been asked the same question many times before.

"I left religion for awhile," he explained with a grin. "Then I came back to it. As you can see." He waved his hand dramatically to call attention to his appearance.

As if I hadn't noticed.

I did a quick calculation and surmised that he must have spent the years he was outside a traditional religious framework listening to a lot of rock and roll. I tried to imagine him clubbing it in Tel Aviv - when? Twenty years ago? Thirty? More? Was there even rock and roll in the country back then?

There's a famous story about the Beatles. In 1964, the fab four expressed an interest in playing the Holy Land but were turned down by a governmental committee who felt the Beatles would be a bad influence on young minds in those heady days of nation-building.

My how times have changed.

"You know, I have a son who'll be bar mitzvah in a few months," I began. "Maybe you could play at his party. Do you know any of the modern stuff? Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, Linkin Park - that kind of thing?"

"We could bring a DJ," Mati offered, not missing a beat.

And that's when I realized why all his music was going down so well with my particular age group in the wedding hall. He probably had a limited number of years as rock and roller before he returned to his religious roots. From the music in his songbook, I was guessing that must have been from about 1972-1983. He wouldn't know from Nirvana or Metallica. He'd probably never even heard of MTV's "So 90s" program.

But that was OK. Because us old fogies were having a great time, even if he didn't know his REM from The Dream Syndicate.

Mati turned to take his leave of us. The second set was about to begin.

And then the band started channeling another great from a not-so-distant past: Barry White. "My first, my last, my everything..." It was as vivid as an episode of Ally McBeal.

But I was still thinking about how Mati warbled out the last line of that Louis Armstrong number earlier in the night. He had changed only a single word, but in that change he had demonstrated the kind of fusion that could only happen when a religious Yemenite with a red tallit spends the better part of the disco years in a Tel Aviv bar.

"And I think to myself, what a wonderful Jerusalem."

To reach Mati Harari of the "Adom Atik" band, call +972 (3)-516-2918 or +972 (53)-789-871.

A note about this story: if any of the songs that Mati and the band played strike a nostalgic chord, click on the links I've assembled for you and relive the magic.

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