Yemenite Blues from Israel
by Daniela Enriquez
If there is a perfect word to describe Ravid Kahalani and Yemen Blues, his new musical project, it would be eclecticism. Born in Israel to Yemenite Jews, Kahalani has been exposed to all kinds of musical genres since his childhood: Yemenite religious hymns, West African sounds, Middle Eastern tunes and, of course, the entire world of modern rhythms: from jazz, to rap, to blues.
With the collaboration of Omer Avital, Itamar Borochov, Rony Iwryn and,as his Facebook page says, “other musicians around the world,” Kahalani—known for his role in Israeli music group The Idan Raichel Project—used his musical experience and knowledge to create a sensational project, which is enchanting listeners all around the globe. Their music is deeply engaging: On stage, they shift from romantic ballades in French to beating songs in Hebrew. All throughout, the influence of Yemenite blues—in the Arabic of the ancient Jewish communities of Yemen—is a recurrent theme underlying all of their musical expressions. As the Jerusalem Post reported, “their concerts are eccentric and inevitably jam packed with fans”.
Kahalani and Yemen Blues were at Sixth and I in Washington, DC on November 13, transforming the historic synagogue into a temple of music. Moment sat down with Kahalani before the concert to talk about Yemenite music and the genesis of Yemen Blues. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.
MM: When and why did you decide to form Yemen Blues?
RK: Around five years ago I discovered North African music. Before that, I listened to a lot of blues, funk, and jazz. Then I discovered this music, which showed me the connection between blues rhythms and roots music, culture music.
When I discovered this connection, I decided to prepare a show which was a collection of the most famous stars’ songs from Africa, together with some African covers shows. I started to compose really simple melodies mixing the different genres, and singing in Yemenite Arabic. This is how I knew what Yemen Blues was going to be. I started with two or three songs, and then I met Omar Avital in Israel, and I was amazed by his work and his knowledge of everything. I approached and told him that I wanted to create a musical project together. That is how we started the first Arabic session of Yemen Blues. At that point, we called our good friends Itamar Doari, Itamar Borochov, and Rony Iwryn. They brought the percussions into the group.
We started to call more people and, in a short time, became a group of around nine people in the studio. What went on there was like a true magic. Every single musician is an expert in his own area. It was an unusual encounter of super musicians, who easily understood each other.
MM: How is the American public reacting to your music?
RK: Yemen Blues’ very first tour was in North America, in February 2011. We have been touring for two years now. It is amazing how all sorts of people from the U.S. and Canada—in particular Yemenite Muslims—love our music. We never tried to combine Yemenite music with jazz, or any kind of genre—we just tried to make the music sound good, and follow the good vibe. People can hear things that are familiar to them, but in a way where you can’t really say what kind of music you are listening to. It is something familiar, but totally new.
MM: You are one of the few Israeli Jews who sings mostly in Arabic. How do you think your audience perceives this? Do you think that being an Israeli and singing in Arabic is also a way to send a positive message?
RK: There are lots of good messages in the lyrics. The sentence I always repeat is: “It doesn’t matter where you come from, your language is my language, all comes from the heart.” Yemen Blues opened my eyes to so many things in music and, through music, in life. Because I don’t think music is entertainment—it is much more than that. Music is a way of life and for me it is a kind of religion, too.
I sing in Arabic, but my parents never spoke to me in Arabic. When they came to Israel, they stopped speaking Arabic. However, we were singing Arabic when we were kids —so I have it in my blood. It is an internal conflict. On the other hand, it is beautiful to see people from Yemen, Arab people who are not connected to the Jewish world [coming to our concerts]. Some people have a difficult time understanding what being an Arab Jew means, what Yemenite Jews are. If you take it way back, it is all very simple. The blues that they sing in America are like the chants sung in Yemen or the music played in North Africa. Same vibes, coming from the same kind of places. People can connect to our music, even if they don’t understand the lyrics, or are unfamiliar with the melodies. It would be great to see this happening in our everyday lives. People go deep into politics or religion, which is beautiful in its own way, but there is something really simple and basic in music, which I try to go very deep into and to understand, in order to base my entire life on it. And I think people should do that, too. They should feel this way in a concert—and not only in a concert but in their everyday life.