The Red Sea Guitar Festival lines up Haim Romano and other Rock icons

Simply put, the Israeli music scene and, in particular, the local rock sector would be very different today without Haim Romano. The now 71-year-old guitarist and bouzouki player belongs to the pioneering generation of artists who started out when Israel was a remote backwater of the rock and pop world and when the likes of Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Shadows ruled the global roost.

Over the past half century-plus, Romano has mixed it with many of our top performers, including Arik Einstein and Mati Caspi, as well as acquiring some rich experience overseas. On March 23, Romano will bring some of that invaluable seasoning, not to mention polished musicianship, to Eilat when he teams up with 46-year-old ethnically-inclined rocker Dudu Tasa on the opening night of the three-day Red Sea Guitar Festival.

They join a stellar lineup, including Shalom Hanoch and Mati Caspi, Hemi Rudner, Yael Deckelbaum, Beri Sacharoff and Evyatar Banai in a glittering three-day lineup.

Haim Romano

It is difficult to overstate Romano’s contribution to the Israeli rock community since its very dawn. He was a member of The Churchills which peddled in psychedelia, progressive and hard rock from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. They were an exciting breath of fresh air for any young Israeli looking to get in on a bit of the real McCoy.

When I first came here from Britain in the seventies, I had no idea what the music scene here was like . Other than Kaveret, all the old folkies and the safe stuff pushed out to the Diaspora to fly the white-and-blue flag high and proud. When Romano developed an active interest in music, as a teenager, the beat emanating out of Swinging London, New York and LA were not just thousands of kilometers away. In terms of accessibility to the average young Israeli, they might as well have been on another planet.

MICKEY SHAVIV is on the roster in this week’s Red Sea Guitar Festival, in Eilat. (credit: SHLOMI ITZCHAKI)

Still, Romano says, word got out and about slowly but surely. “We heard stuff from the guys. We got to know about the music from word of mouth. It was a sort of friend-brings-another-friend thing.” Back then, long before the Internet and the seemingly bottomless YouTube rabbit hole of information, if you were into pop and rock music you generally had to rely on radio stations in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt that broadcast hit numbers a few hours weekly.

IF YOU were lucky, like now 70-year-old drummer Meir Yisrael, you had a relative on the other side of the Pond who mailed you LPs by The Beatles et al. “We shared our music. We got a band together and that was that,” Romano adds unceremoniously.

The band was The Churchills. It was founded by guitarist-vocalist Yitzhak Klepter – who became known as Churchill – and Romano was in from the start, at the tender age of 15. That wasn’t too long after he started out on his instrumental journey. He caught the bug early. “I decided I wanted to play guitar when I was in first grade,” he laughs. He had to put that childhood dream on hold for a while. “The teacher told my father my hands were still too small,” Romano recalls. Still, the youngster was not to be denied. “I played mandolin instead. I could manage that.”

By the age of 13, fired by the likes of Hank Marvin of the Shadows and Elvis, the starry-eyed youngster actually got to meet Marvin when The Shadows came here to play, in 1964. He graduated to his first choice instrument, taught himself a bunch of chords and paid his dues in a neighborhood band that played covers of rock and pop hits in outfits at parties.

There was no stopping the budding guitarist and just a year or so later he was a bona fide member of the emerging underground rock scene, joining the Churchills for gigs at smoke-filled dives in the back streets of Ramle and Tel Aviv.

Romano’s party circuit training stood him in good stead. “We all played covers in those days,” he explains. “The bands that did the best versions were the most popular.” The Churchills certainly did the business, even if their English language diction was not always quite up to par. But, as veteran pop and rock radio and TV show presenter Yoav Kutner noted in his 1990s documentary series The End of the Orange Season, “no one in the audiences understood English either so the singer could just mumble gibberish and no one knew the difference.”

Mind you, the Churchills got a lot of help in that department when Canadian vocalist Stan Solomon joined the troupe. They had to be on their mettle when they set off for pastures anew, spending several months in Copenhagen in 1968. That was an enriching experience both on and off the stage. “We played a lot of gigs there,” Romano recalls. “It was a great time.”

HE AND the rest of the band also got to see some of their idols in action. “We saw The Doors. We also heard Jimi Hendrix was coming to play in Copenhagen, so we rushed to get tickets. It was an amazing experience.” Unfortunately, the vibe had to be curtailed. “We had a show to do, so we had to leave before the end,” he says. “We backed out of the hall. We didn’t want to miss anything.”

Then it was back to Israel where the Churchills landed a career-boosting gig backing preeminent pop singer Arik Einstein, including playing on his 1969 Poozy considered to be this country’s first genuine Hebrew-language rock release.

A year later, Romano, bassist Miki Gavrielov and the rest of the band decamped to London where they changed their name to Jericho Jones and met with some success and also missed out on an opportunity of a lifetime. “We were signed to make a record,” says Romano. “We went to Gloucester to rehearse and then we got a call from Led Zeppelin’s manager. He wanted us to open for Led Zeppelin on their winter tour.” The problem was, the band’s British record label was only willing to let the Israelis go if they paid the company 5,000 pounds, a huge amount of dough at the time. “It would have been great,” says Romano philosophically, “but we didn’t have the cash.”

The guitarist returned home in 1974 and played with most of the leading rockers here and got into record production. He also rediscovered his ethnic roots along the way, when rock guitarist-vocalist Yehuda Poliker decided to reconnect with his own Greek backdrop. Romano got the call to join Poliker, on bouzouki. True to his autodidactic path to guitar wizardry, Romano soon mastered the Greek instrument, too, no doubt feeding off the sounds he heard as a kid when his Greek-born dad threw parties.

The Eilat gig with Tasa appears to be tailor-made for the septuagenarian rocker. Tasa dug into his own cultural baggage over a decade ago when he began exploring the music of his Iraqi-born father and great-uncle Daoud and Sallah Al-Kuwaiti. It will be the first time Romano and Tasa have taken a stage together but it has all the makings of a high-energy, ethnically-seasoned rock experience for artists and audiences alike.

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