Ravid Kahalani, founder of the new Israeli band Yemen Blues, takes a moment out of an exhilarating year to discuss his life and music.
Bombs. Gunfire. Armed checkpoints. Mainstream news headlines portray Israel as one of the most violent places in the world. Conflict is there, but it is only one part of a much larger picture.
Enter Yemen Blues, a new band from Israel led by visionary singer Ravid Kahalani. Yemen Blues embodies Kahalani’s passionate belief in intrinsic human goodness and in music’s power to bring out the best in people and to cut across religious and cultural differences. “The truth is that as bad things are happening,” Kahalani states, “GOOD things are happening even more all the time.”
The band just released its first album and has toured from Israel to the United States performing a sound never before heard: blues blended with Yemenite Jewish chants, West African percussion, funk, and much, much more. Yemen Blues’ innovative, high-energy music is no doubt one part of their success. Their positivity also speaks to the many people who, like Kahalani, choose to look beyond the doom-and-gloom of news headlines and see the beautiful side of life.
Born into a large Yemenite Jewish family in Israel, Kahalani grew up learning traditional religious chants. He inherited his family’s famous vocal skills and first demonstrated them at the synagogue at the young age of five. Truly an artistic chameleon, Kahalani later branched off to explore blues and soul music, acting, and percussion. Yet many of the seemingly disparate threads of his artistic experiences are in fact a natural progression of one another, especially his singing.
Voice students take note: Kahalani’s masterful vocal control and range reflect a natural talent perfected through a lifetime of practice and a passion for diverse musical styles. While performing in Serbia in 2004, he discovered the beauty of Orthodox Church music and undertook to learn its vocal techniques. This interest led to a serious two-year study of opera back in Israel.
Kahalani eventually “came home” to the Yemenite music of his childhood while performing as one half of the duo Desert Blues. This and similar musical undertakings, including singing with the Idan Raichel Project, fueled his creative vision and enhanced his expertise. Well-versed then in the music of North Africa, the Middle East, and beyond, where could he go from there?
In 2008, Kahalani met Omer Avital and all of his life’s musical experiences came together. An acclaimed composer, bassist, and oud player, Avital is also part Yemenite and grew up with a similarly rich background of religious, regional, and other music. He spent the first decade of his musical career in New York City steeped in jazz, leading bands and performing with legends such as Wynton Marsalis. Avital returned to Israel for a few years to study composition and Arabic and Israeli music, eventually working with Kahalani on the 2008 Israel Festival production of Debka Fantasia.
Yemen Blues’ ten-track eponymous album features Kahalani’s amazing voice and Avital’s instrumental arrangements performed by talented musicians from Israel, the United States, and Uruguay. Kahalani emphasizes that the group’s cohesion gives their music its strength. In interviews, he names each individual musician: Rony Iwryn (Latin percussion), Itamar Doari (Middle Eastern percussion), Itamar Borochov (trumpet), Galia Hai (viola), Hilla Epstain (cello), Hadar Noiberg (flute), Yohai Cohen (percussion), and Reut Regev (trombone). “You can see onstage how much power there is [in the music] because of the people,” Kahalani states.
Through its music, Yemen Blues seeks to bring listeners to what Kahalani calls the “moment of the soul.” It is the fundamental goodness that he believes all people share. He stresses that basic human understanding “before any opinion or religion” is the essential foundation for a peaceful coexistence.
As the band’s name suggests, blues music provides the medium through which all other musical elements are mixed. Its free, improvisational nature and emotiveness suit the band’s mission and Kahalani’s creativity. He likens it to his own artistic experience that, like blues music, stretches across numerous different cultures. Kahalani uses it to link the many experiences of his life together and to connect with audiences around the world.
This studio session of “Um Min Al Yaman,” which describes a journey in a dream, captures the energy of Yemen Blues.
Yemen Blues’ band members clearly love performing together, and their collaborative energy carries over into the audience. Their music often fills listeners with such a sense of joy that it is not uncommon to see audience members of all ages dancing together in the aisles during concerts. The energy generated at performances is an important element of the music that the group successfully recreated on its first album. “We recorded the album entirely in one room with nothing between us so we could feel each others’ energy,” explains Kahalani.
Kahalani primarily sings in Yemenite Arabic, the language of his family. “I’m trying to learn everything back now,” he says. At the same time, he also pairs languages that fit best with the melody and the meaning of songs. “Trape La Verite,” for example, uses French Creole to describe the end of a romance. Kahalani’s singing is at its finest here, ranging from lullaby-like to wailing. The gentle instrumentization by Avital, especially of the percussion and strings, provides the perfect backing for this bittersweet song.
Yemen Blues performs “Trape La Verite” at Reading3 in Tel Aviv.
The bottom line
To date, Yemen Blues has performed from Israel to Spain and from Brazil to the United States, drawing critical praise wherever they go. More telling of their success, however, is their connection with audience members and the fact that they are genuinely fulfilling their musical vision. Yemen Blues works as a band because they have found the right creative medium—blues music—and truly believe in what they are doing. There is a lot of lip service paid to the “universality” of music, but this is a band that could even make a skeptic believe.
“Baraca,” performed at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, demonstrates the best of the band’s musical and collaborative skills.
Yemen Blues’ feverish performance schedule continues this summer, offering numerous opportunities to hear them live. Their website provides details about many of their performances, and check your local concert listings too for those not shown.
We look forward to catching Yemen Blues perform again in the San Francisco Bay Area this summer and expect a bright future for this talented and worthy band.
Ravid Kahalani photo by GANGI.