Singing the Yemen Blues

Kahalani's goal is to connect them to his creation by making his lyrics and material count in people's hearts.

Ravid Kahalani (photo credit: ZOHAR RON)
Ravid Kahalani
(photo credit: ZOHAR RON)
From his edgy hairstyle to his ebullient dial tone, which greeted me with James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” to his unbeatable charisma onstage, Yemen Blues frontman Ravid Kahalani’s eccentricities shine through every aspect of his being.
We recently caught up with Kahalani, fresh off his North American mini-tour and ready to perform for Israeli fans.
“The stage has always been the most comfortable place for me,” the 39-year-old Yemenite Israeli vocalist shares. Kahalani attributes his energetic stage presence to his audience, saying he’s continually amazed by “the energy of the people.”
His goal: to connect them to his creation by making his lyrics and material count in their hearts. “And I also just love to dance,” he jests.
Despite what Yemen Blues’ all-round parties might suggest, Kahalani fully comprehends that the life of a musician is not all fun and games. He takes his professional responsibilities extremely seriously, saying that “the performer needs to be super-sensitive and exact in the message he wants to get across because he has the power to change lives. When that power is used for good, and the performer gives it everything he’s got for the right reasons, that’s when the real magic happens.”
Quite a spiritual ethos; one that alludes to the composer’s religious upbringing. Kahalani grew up in Bat Yam and in an Orthodox settlement called Elon Moreh, with two very traditional Yemenite Jewish parents. Religious Yemenite culture was a strong part of his childhood, specifically the prayers, that were sung to very unique and specific melodies, “similar to Arabic melodies, but with their own swing to them.”
Nowadays, a common trope in first-generation young adults who are raised in this complex gray area where their parent’s old world meets contemporary society is to run away from their ethnic roots entirely. So what inspired Kahalani to preserve his? “First of all, I did run away from it all,” he answers. “From the age of 18 or so, I was listening to tons of other music, coming mainly from Afro-American influences, which later directed me towards purely African beats. I also loved blues from the ‘30s to the ‘60s, free jazz and funk.”
All of these influences swirled together in a cultural melting pot, uniting East and West, Africa and Yemen, in what eventually formed the basis of his collective, Yemen Blues. Nevertheless, an affinity for African music did not so much open Kahalani’s eyes to the diversity of musical flavors as introduce him to the underlying similarities at the very core of all styles.
“Once I started listening to African music, I realized that it wasn’t any different from the Arab world – the soulfulness, how it is presented, how it feels... which helped me understand that everything is connected through evolution,” whereby everything is merely “a version upon a version of what was built before.”
This, cultural, soul-connecting “musical thing” is what he tries to preserve, he says, and facilitate the evolution of.
The musicians of Yemen Blues – created in 2010 when Kahalani joined forces with musical director Omer Avital after working on together on his project, Debka Fantasia – are as diverse as Kahalani’s musical tastes. Israeli percussionist Rony Iwryn, for instance, hails from Uruguay and has a passion for world music, while Brooklyn-based trumpeter Itamar Borochov brings North African and Bukhari spices to the group, and so on.
The musicians pride themselves on achieving a complete, natural sound from the get-go, the result of a universal understanding of the need to “serve the music in the moment.”
Kahalani and Avital’s relationship shaped these moments, stemming from an unspoken bond that reached deeper than the music alone, so it came as somewhat of a surprise when Avital left the group in 2012 to pursue his own jazz career.
Right before the power duo went their separate ways, they had one last, massive world tour together with Yemen Blues, and came home to play what then seemed like any other show at Zappa, Tel Aviv. Little did they know that six years down the winding road, this live show would singlehandedly fuel Yemen Blues’ second album, Live in Tel Aviv.
“It’s all thanks to my good friend and crazy New York musician Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz,” says Kahalani.
Blumenkranz filled the void left by Avital, and created a new label called Chant Records that releases music from all over the world, and covers all genres from avant-garde to rock.
“He took this great album we never released from that show, and made it into something spectacular,” Kahalani says.
Yemen Blues’ first album was meticulously orchestrated in a studio under the guidance of legendary producer Bill Laswell; there was nothing preplanned about Live in Tel Aviv.
“We played our show, and the tracks appear in the order we performed that night, without any fuss.”
Perhaps little planning went into the recording process this time around, but there are some preplanned additions to the group’s sound that set this album apart, like 17-yearold bassist Daniel Iwryn (son of Rony) and some rather unorthodox languages.
During the Zappa performance, Kahalani incorporated languages that transcend his verbal and comprehensive lexicon.
“In my creations, I use language as a tool. Sometimes Arabic or Hebrew don’t fit with my melodies, so I opt for French or Creole instead. Even if I don’t speak those languages, it becomes about their sound.”
He uses this talking point to branch out to a more global sphere.
“I don’t have rules about my creation – of what I should or shouldn’t do – if it feels right, then I go for it.”
This February, Kahalani is breaking the rules yet again with a 20-piece reunion show at Reading 3. The show, which he has titled “Yemen Blues Fest,” will feature a grand-slam lineup of almost every musician who has ever played in Yemen Blues.
“It’s going to be a really personal moment for me. I’m coming out of a very tough period in my life, so all of my friends are coming to share their love and support. At the end of the day, we are all here for love, even when we don’t know it. Most of my focus in music is about love, it’s the source for everything that we are.”
Share the love this February at one of Yemen Blues’ performances: February 9 at Hapitriya Pub, inside Kibbutz Dan, February 10 at Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine, or February 23 at Tel Aviv’s Reading 3.