World-class musician splits time between Tel Aviv and Novato

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Yossi Fine was 4 years old when he picked up the guitar for the first time.

“My father showed me a few chords, and I got them that same day,” he said. “I was like a sponge.”

By 16, he was playing in a band. At first, it had two guitarists and needed a bass player. They couldn’t find one, so he tried his hand at the bass and fell in love. “After I touched the bass, I got more love from it than I ever did from the guitar,” he said. “I had something else going on with it. It’s the instrument that took me all over the world.”

Fine, 48, who now splits his time between Marin and Tel Aviv — with many trips to Africa and Europe as well — made his name as a bass player, and has played with such musicians as David Bowie and Lou Reed.

An Israeli publication once said that what Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar, Fine has done for the bass. And Lior Tsarfaty, an Israeli musician who lives in the Bay Area, credits Fine with starting the Jewish-Israeli hip-hop scene.

Fine never took lessons, but music was in his blood. His father, who plays guitar, was born in Kovno, Lithuania, and spent the Holocaust in hiding and on the run with his family. His mother, a singer of African descent, grew up in Martinique, the French island in the Caribbean.  Both were spending time in Paris when they met and had Yossi, and moved to Israel two weeks after he was born. While his mother converted to Judaism for her son’s sake, his parents were young, and weren’t ready for the responsibility of raising a child. While they both remained in his life, he was raised by his father’s mother, a Holocaust survivor.

“I think I got very lucky, the angels worked it out that way,” Fine said in a recent interview in his sublet in Novato. “I was raised by someone who had been through a lot of stuff and had experience. She knew what to do and what not to do.”

The Holocaust was very much a part of Fine’s childhood, he said. His grandparents had divorced shortly after their arrival in Israel, but his grandmother’s attitude was: “[We] survived and everything is possible.” He said his grandmother cured her own trauma with lots of exercise, by eating a vegan diet (very unusual in Israel at that time) and by expressing herself through art.

“Her paintings were always vivid with these live colors, which to me, represented her choosing life,” Fine said.

Although Fine’s father left the raising of his son to his mother, he realized it was important to expose his son to his black roots on his mother’s side. In Israel, that meant regular trips south to Dimona, to spend time with the Black Hebrews, a community of mostly American blacks who emigrated to Israel, believing they are descendants of the ancient Israelites. 

“Hanging out with them brought out a lot of my black identity,” said Fine, who sports long dreadlocks. “They’re also great musicians, so they were a huge influence.” By interacting with them, he became fluent in English at a young age.

By age 16, Fine was in demand as a bass player in Israel. He had played in numerous studio sessions and was making more money than most Israeli teens. At 18, when he was called into military service, he convinced the army he’d be of no use.

He described the conversation: “In music, I’m going to be something. What am I going to do here?” He continued: “I’m grateful they figured it out. I would have been a burden on the system.”

In Tel Aviv, members of an American alternative jazz group saw Fine perform. After they returned to New York, they needed a new bass player and they invited Fine to join them in New York. He was 20, and his career took off.

“Within a year, I was playing with some of my heroes,” he said. He began in the improv jazz world, playing with such greats as John Scofield and the Gil Evans Orchestra. But he was equally at home playing rock, and much later, sat in on sessions with Lou Reed and David Bowie. He stayed in New York long enough to earn a Grammy nomination, but in 1995, he moved back to Israel, playing with Ofra Haza and other Israeli musicians. Over time, he fell in love with hip-hop, coming up with the bass line for a huge hit in 1993, Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray.”

Fine says that at the wise old age of 28, he began to realize that rock stars don’t stay young forever, which led him into producing. Producing other people’s music was a perfect fit for him, he said, because “I’m very opinionated, and I knew how stuff should be.”

Tsarfaty, the Israeli musician, has another take. He selected Fine to produce his upcoming CD, “The Prayer Songs Project,” because, he said, Fine “has a very sensitive ear and heart that can grasp live music in a way that many other producers can’t.”

While Fine has stopped playing bass for hire, and produces pretty much full time now, he still plays bass for some projects. One was Israeli singer Idan Raichel’s collaboration with a singer and guitarist from Mali, Vieux Farka Touré. They created an album together, called the Tel Aviv Sessions, and took it on the road.

He also founded his own collaborative band, Ex-Centric Sound System, with musicians from Ghana. It was touring with this band that first brought him to the Bay Area, and he immediately knew he someday wanted to live here. He moved here, half-time, in 2007. In the true spirit of the Bay Area, he has become a certified life coach, even without a college degree.

While he coaches some non-musician clients, he specializes in working with musicians who are wondering about their next steps.

“What I love doing as a producer is to take whatever people do and make it better. After I’m done with you, you’re gonna see a way better version of yourself.”

Fine was married to an Israeli and has three children. After the couple divorced, his ex-wife took the kids back to Israel. He is a very devoted father, he said, spending equal time in California and Israel, although he is also on the road quite a bit.

In Israel he has produced rap superstars Hadag Nahash, and is currently working on a number of projects, including an album by an Israeli-Palestinian “metal hard rock orchestra” from Akko called Khalas.

He’s producing several projects in Africa, which takes him there at least twice a year, and one in Ecuador. He says that living in the United States and traveling so much to Africa has gotten him more in touch with his black ancestry. Fine says he identifies now more as a Hebrew than a Jew.

 “Jews are very connected to their history,” he said. “We know where grandpa came from, and our great-great grandparents, and this goes all the way back 2,000 years. Black people usually don’t know this. I think that always was weird for me, that one part of me knows and the other doesn’t. Ex-Centric Sound System was the Jewish in me researching his black roots, and once I started going to Africa, that connected me with my Jewishness more than anything I ever did before.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."