Coming home to Yemen

Singer-percussionist Ravid Kahalani’s Yemen Blues act will stretch the artistic and ethnic lines at this year’s Givatayim Jazz Festival.

ravidkahalani311 (photo credit: .)
ravidkahalani311
(photo credit: .)
It is no news that the blues originates from Mother Africa, but Ravid Kahalani’s take on the genre’s beginnings is somewhat more eclectic than the standard reading.
The 31-year-old singer’s parents both hail from Yemen – his father was born there as were his maternal grandparents – and his childhood musical memories are a multihued mix of liturgical and other religious songs and chants with a generous helping of blues, soul and jazz. “I was into all kinds of black music,” says Kahalani who will front a star-studded nine-piece band in his Yemen Blues show on the first evening of this year’s Givatayim Jazz Festival (May 6-8), “especially soul and blues. My dad also made sure we could read from the Torah, and we sang Shabbat songs and at the synagogue, so I think I got a well-rounded musical education.”
It was the blues that steered the teenaged Kahalani away from his familial roots. “I broke away from the stuff I heard at home, for a while. I really got into the blues. I really felt at home singing the blues.” Paradoxically it was also the blues – with substantial African ethnic input – that brought Kahalani back to roost, and eventually spawned his current Yemen Blues project. “About five years ago I met an oud player guitarist called Alon Amano Kamtino and he introduced me to West African music from all over. He played me CDs from Mali, Mauritania, Sudan and Nubia. I was fascinated.”
Kahalani’s odyssey into African blues took off in earnest and he immersed himself in the music and lyrics. “I learned all the songs by heart, even though at first I didn’t understand the words. Later I researched the songs, and the stories behind them, and the language and the cultures they come from. I felt as if I’d come across a whole new world.”
As he ventured ever deeper into African musical territory Kahalani, in fact, discovered more of a common thread running through the various parts of the world from where the music he was getting into originated. “You know, it’s all about what comes from the soul,” he muses. “The blues is the same blues whether it comes from Africa or the Mississippi.” That also applies to his own ethnic music. “There is blues in Yemenite music too, and singing bluesy songs through the Yemenite culture is a perfectly means of expression for me.”
For the last two years Kahalani has also been expressing himself, and delving into other ethnic areas as a member of Idan Reichel’s acoustic band. “I bring an improvisational element to the Reichel acoustic project,” says Kahanali. “I got a lot of exposure through working with Idan, and he has helped me become more professional. He is very encouraging about my Yemen blues stuff.”

Kahalani’s Yemen Blues outfit is a natural consummation of all theseethnic musical sources. The stellar nine-member ensemble featuresmusicians from several genres, including New York-based bassist-oudjazz-ethnic music player Omer Avital, jazz trombonist-band leader AviLebovich, classical viola player Galia Hai and fellow Reichel sidemanpercussionist Itamar Duari, with Kahalani enhancing his vocal work withpercussion playing too.
The band recently returned from a highly successful appearance at theBabel Med world music gathering in Marseilles, France and a debut CD isin the making, with a Dutch label lined up for the expected summerrelease. Kahalani is happy with the way things are panning out. “Allthese guys [in the band] are really busy but they are all making thetime to do it, because they love it so much. I really feel theirenthusiasm when we play together, and I’m sure the audience inGivatayim will feel it too.”
For more information about the Givatayim Jazz Festival: www.t-g.co.il