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The Battle of a Band 

Maetar explodes a world of funky stuff

Thursday, Oct 28 2004
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Photo by Sergio Penalva

Who’s the studly farm boy strutting the bass, with his Carnaby hair, sculpted ’burns and satin shirt bringing on 1972 Raspberries flashbacks? That’s Itai Disraeli — he also reads ancient wisdom in the original languages, as it happens. And who’s the dome-cropped polar opposite on the other side of the stage, blowing soulful, yearning lines on trumpet, the soft-featured, sensitive one, uncomfortable in gaudy stage pajamas? That’s Itai’s brother, Hagai Izraeli, who likes to imagine the music as a movie. How about the drummer, rolling out the funk with carefree chopsmanship? He’s Berklee-schooled Peter Buck, a “left-wing born-again Christian” who dedicates every note to Jesus.

Oh. You knew something was up the minute you tuned in to “F Jam,” the hooky, spacious lead cut of the debut album by the instrumental groove trio Maetar (Hebrew for “string”). And that’s just the skeleton of a sound that opens up live into multiple dimensions: jazz, rock, blues and Middle Eastern melodic/ rhythmic launch points; spontaneous switch-offs to flutes and percussion auxiliaries; zoned-out effects splashes; and especially a capering, grinning sense of delight that visibly soaks everything these dudes do.

You had a clue, but it takes a little conversation at Hagai’s artfully severe West L.A. family bunker to appreciate the true strangeness of the ingredients that combined to create the fresh mess that is Maetar.

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Picture Itai and Hagai in Israel, their birthplace and spiritual fountainhead. Raised on a kibbutz, they obsess on music, all kinds. They grit through their mandatory hitches in the army. Gaining renown for their playing skills, they cross paths with some American exile musicians locally called Black Hebrews, who’ve traveled through Africa into the Promised Land questing for roots in the 12 Tribes. They champion the initially unwelcome visitors and get them accepted. The two glean life/music lessons from Judaism, from the wanderers, from visiting jazzmen such as Dizzy Gillespie and Jaki Byard. They read about Ellington and Sun Ra, get the Amiri Baraka cultural perspective. Their minds explode.

Now picture Itai and Hagai in their Herzeliyya homes during the 1991 Gulf War. Their TV screens go blue — the universal signal that a Scud is screaming down. Bomb? Gas? They don’t know. They’ve got 60 seconds to slap gas masks on babies, pets and themselves and dive into their sealed safe rooms. Wheeeeoooo SMASH BOOM! Must’ve been a few streets away. They’re okay — this time. Repeat as necessary.

Their minds explode again, this time with the urgency that they’ve got to get the hell out of Israel, locus of danger and provider of no work. They board a plane for the USA, home of their inspiration, dropping their gas masks in a box by the boarding door. They become Americans. They raise families. They make music.

 

And people respond. Maetar entered a battle of the bands at Universal CityWalk a year ago. Seems a little silly: not only the cornball format, but the notion that a group with hardly any vocal jawing could be a competitive chomper. Maetar won.

“Any crowd that we’ve played to, the reactions were the same,” says Itai, gushing the words together. “Some punk kids are walking by, and first they think, ‘Oh, it’s jazz,’ but before you know it, they’re sitting there. And the same thing with old couples — they see the electric bass, and I pop it a little bit, and the first thing, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be loud,’ but then they stay, and they come back, and they bring other people.”

It’s true. People listen, watch and dance.

“People danced to Duke Ellington. They danced to Count Basie. They danced to Louis Armstrong,” says Itai. “And I feel that if people dance to our music, they have one more way to receive the depth that’s in it. Actually it makes them move on a visceral level, they can’t just sit there and politely judge whether they’re liking it or not. They feel it, and that element of feeling . . .”

“That element relates directly to a church element,” Peter’s throat-scarred croak butts in. The Wisconsin-born skinsman played with Keb Mo’, Bonnie Raitt, Thelma Houston, spent three years with Michelle Shocked, and logged his first gig with Maetar two years ago without so much as one rehearsal. “I grew up in a Presbyterian church where you just sat there and received the Word. But I never really felt the spirit of religion until my wife, who is black, took me to her Baptist church, and all of a sudden people were clapping, dancing, moving, feeling it physically.”

“The strongest spiritual connection that you can have to the universe is from making music,” says Hagai, the quiet insister.

Maetar can push buttons, because they’ve got a lot of fingers. “The sound of a distorted electric guitar or the sound of an 808 kick drum or the sound of scratching is as much a part of my vocabulary as is a major 7th chord,” says Itai. As for recycling standard licks, “I spit on it!” he expostulates with a dramatic cartoon loogie. “I’m not on this Earth to regurgitate someone else’s ideas.”

Excellent musicians these guys certainly are. And one indicator of that is how well they understand the value of simplicity. Itai tells a story:

“Our grandfather used to play mandolin and banjo, and we had the whole family sitting around on Saturdays and playing together. He used to call jazz jazzim — in Hebrew, im is like a plural.” He copies the old man’s growl: “‘All this jazzim that you play — where is the melody? Where is the melody?’ And then I played him ‘Summertime,’ and he’s like, ‘Thatsa not jazz. This is good melody.’”

 

The Maetar men play music and teach music. Their lives are music. “I feel like I’m choosing music every day,” says Hagai, “so the connection is getting deeper and deeper.” While special moments of communication are a kick, he thinks the real thing is the process. Every note. “When you are younger, you think, ‘Okay, one day . . .’” He fades out. “But this is the one day. Now.”

 

Maetar play the Skirball Cultural Center’s Café Z on Saturday, October 30, at noon (see Other Jazz), and at Harvelle’s on Wednesday, November 3.

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