Funk the Yemenite way

Nine-member Jerusalem-based Bint El-Funk brings its Hebrew, Arabic and English rhythms to Tel Aviv this week.

Bint El-Funk (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bint El-Funk
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The old adage has it that seeing is believing, and that certainly goes for Shiran Karni. 29-yearold Karni is the vocalist of the colorfully-named nine-member Jerusalem-based Bint El-Funk ensemble, which will do scintillatingly groovy business at the Barby club in Tel Aviv tonight.
The show is a double-header with Jewish- Arab hip hop group System Ali.
“When they see me, people think I am Ethiopian, not Yemenite,” notes Karni. It doesn’t take more than a fleeting glance to appreciate where that idea comes from.
And it is not only the singer’s looks that intimate that there are some African roots in there somewhere. Most of the group’s songs are performed in Hebrew and Yemenite, but there are some English offerings on which Karni sounds like she hails from any of the Deep South of the United States, Detroit, Chicago or Harlem.
“I love [soul queen] Aretha Franklin, and [jazz, R&B and blues diva] Dina Washington.
That’s certainly part of where I come from,” states Karni.
The band’s name comes from the Arabic word for “daughter” (bint), and all nine members’ love of funk licks. Karni says that ties in neatly with her natural musical roots. “Yemenite music also has a groove, like funk,” she says. “It comes naturally to me and I am passionate about the music, as are all the other people in the band.”
The latter include no less than four Tals – two of each gender – keyboardist Tal Timor, trumpeter Tal Avraham, Tal Sandman on electric guitar and Tal Ben-Rei on trombone – along with double bass player Or Sinai, drummer Regev Baruch, saxophonist Oded Ben-itzhak and percussionist Ivan Chernishash. They make for a merry bunch, and they all exude captivating vibrancy and joie de vivre.
That was evident last Wednesday evening when the band got together in their cozy rehearsal room at the decidedly industrial end of Talpiyot in Jerusalem.
The Barby date was only five days off and there were evidently quite a few loose ends to be conjoined before the nonet took the stage.
“I think we should leave some space here, before you come in with the vocals,” proffered Timor to Karni, and the rest of the gang. “Is the hook the intro?” queried Avraham, before Sinai demonstrated the chord sequence on double bass.
For now, the fruits of the outfit’s new creation goes by the name of “Sweet Back and Flower Seller,” with the first part of the name coming from an English language funk number, and the second part from a Yemenite song.
The fusion of energies, genres and ethnic origins is a basic ingredient of what Bint El-Funk does. “We write original material, and we take traditional Yemenite songs and we run with them,” says Karni. “My teacher, [veteran Yemenite singer] Gila Beshari, also does that. It’s OK to take traditional material and turn it into something else. Hey, this is 2014!” she declares.
That contemporary ethos is part and parcel of the way Karni et al go about their business, and offer the public access to material which most will not have heard before. “We perform Yemenite women’s songs which, in the past, were only sung by women for women,” explains the vocalist, adding that while the more conservative- minded members of the Yemenite community, Karni’s father included, may not be too happy about airing the previously unpublicized songs, audiences up and down the country have responded enthusiastically.
Although Karni initiated the concept of the venture, there is clearly no casting status here. While the rehearsal room was certainly a lively affair, with all the members putting in their two cents’ worth, there was nothing excessive about the conceptual dynamics, and there was never a hint of over-heightened emotions. Mind you, Karni says things can get a bit heated from time to time. “We sometimes shout and scream at each other, but we always calm down and, if need be, apologize afterwards. You get that in any family.”
There is a definite sense of union and mutual support in the troupe. Most of the members have been with the band for around a year and a half, with Avraham, Ben-Rei and Ben-Yitzhak augmenting the collective sound with some enriching brass textures around a year ago. All the musicians are students at the Academy of Music and Dance of the Hebrew University, and Karni says they all bring their individual expertise to the fray. “We have three members who are studying composition, some are performance students and we have someone in the jazz department. It enriches what we do, and how we create.”
At 29, Karni is three or four years older than the others and says she was determined to make the band, and her own career, work from the start. “I never studied singing formally before I started at the academy,” she says. “I sang in all kinds of bands in Tel Aviv, I was a kindergarten teacher for a while and I did all kinds of things, but I was always going to be a singer.
Just look at my name – shir [‘song’] and ran [‘joy’]. You know the Yemenites give their children names with meaning, so I was obviously meant to be a singer.” She clearly has abundant natural talent, and she was accepted to the academy despite her lack of formal education. “I was really surprised and overjoyed when they took me,” she recalls. “I have learned so much – we all have – at the academy.”
Karni notes regretfully that she did not get too much in the way of parental support for her artistic endeavor, but says that her mother recently came to one of the band’s gigs. “You know what Jewish parents can be like – they just want their kids to have a good job and get married and have kids. My father still can’t understand why I want to be a singer, but it was great when my mom came to the show. She really had a good time.”
A French TV channel recently ran a report on Karni, and the band’s concert schedule is filling out nicely. For now, Karni is concentrating on the Barby date.
“It is going to be a lot of fun,” she says. “It will be great doing our own stuff, and combining with System Ali. There will be a great groove there. That’s what’s it’s all about.”
Bint El Funk will perform at the Barby club in Tel Aviv tonight at 8:30 p.m. For tickets and more information: (03) 518-8123 and