I met Yosi Piamenta at a cousin's wedding in 2001, having not previously been aware of his music. Buying an autographed CD from him that nighthelped to lead to a new world. It helped to put me on my path to spirtual growth by listening to his music with my youngest daughter as we drove to school. It allowed me to additionally find common ground as my daughter sang along.
Piamenta was a virtuoso guitarist who had a long career performing original music as well as traditional Jewish, Israeli and Arabic songs arranged in his signature style.
Born in Israel on November 29, 1951, Piamenta moved to the U.S. in his mid-20s to play and record with saxophonist Stan Getz, but their collaboration was never commercially released.
Shortly afterwards, he abandoned his focus on secular music, became a Lubavitcher hasid, and together with his brother Avi, a virtuoso flautist, became popular on the Jewish music scene, releasing numerous albums through the 1980s and ‘90s, including “Mitzvah,” “Tismach,” “As You Like It,” “1990” and “Strings of My Heart.”
Piamenta’s guitar sound was immediately recognizable, not just because of the gear he used, such as a Fender Stratocaster and Mesa Boogie amplifier, but because of his tone, articulations, and ornamentation, which were deeply rooted in Middle-Eastern music. Loud, extended guitar solos and jams were also signature elements of Piamenta’s sound.
Piamenta’s look was also unique; he was proud of his Judaism, and always wore a large colorful Sephardic kippah, with his tzitzit hanging out, and a large bushy beard. A genial man, he was always accessible at his shows, willing to talk to fans, and even to invite them back to the dressing room for ma’ariv prayers.
Music writers often referred to Piamenta as “The Hasidic Hendrix” or “The Sephardic Santana”. Although Piamenta’s guitar tone was rooted in psychedelic rock, his sound and approach were individual, blending rock timbres with Arabic modes in a very personal style. A pioneer of the electric guitar in Jewish music, Piamenta influenced many Jewish musicians, including virtually every religious guitar player active on the New York bar mitzvah and wedding circuit.
Piamenta's fan-base is wide. A majority of Piamenta's large fan-base appreciate Piamenta as an iconic Jewish musician and attend his live performances at religious events and Jewish concerts and weddings; but Piamenta has also attracted a fan-base sub-culture following of his music who particularly enjoy his take on rock, blues and his lengthy guitar solos that Piamenta usually plays only at smaller concerts held in bars and clubs. In addition to his live performances, Piamenta has also released a series of widely received studio albums that can be found in many Jewish home in the US and Israel. The Piamenta Band has been one of the highest requested musicians for Jewish weddings over the last century. Most, but not all, of Piamenta's concerts and albums had been performed or recorded in conjunction with his brother, Avi Piamenta.
Many highlight his collaboration with Stan Getz as “proof” of how good he was. But this misses the point of what he was about. Piamenta wasn’t good because one jazz legend heard something in his playing. He was good because he had soul and serious chops, passion, creativity, and energy, and he always played his heart out. In an era of cookie-cutter performers he broke the mold, producing compelling Jewish music that was both fresh and traditional in the deepest sense.
Piamenta took his musical vocabulary and applied it to a variety of Jewish music styles: old nigunim, Sephardic pizmonim, Arabic songs, and Hasidic pop. No matter the genre, his sound and approach was always immediately identifiable. It is hard to pick another Orthodox instrumentalist who can be identified with only a few notes.
In addition to being an original songwriter, Piamenta covered others' music in the religious Jewish music category – his album Songs of the Rebbes includes various Lubavitch, Belz and Sephardi nigunim and Zemirot – as well as secular American music, such as Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix. Piamenta has described his music style saying, "I do klezmer with electric guitar."
Yosi Piamenta died on August 23 after a difficult struggle with cancer. He was 64.
Piamenta leaves behind a rich musical legacy including recordings, an influence on many musicians, and an enhanced repertoire of Arabic and Middle Eastern tunes that are, thanks to him, now familiar to the Ashkenazi community as well.
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