Sounds from the soul

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

Yemenite vocalist Ravid Kahalani (photo credit: ZOHAR RON)
Yemenite vocalist Ravid Kahalani
(photo credit: ZOHAR RON)
Ravid Kahalani and his Yemen Blues troupe have gained a reputation for putting out all sorts of sounds and rhythms in recent years, and generally with bucket loads of energy and bonhomie. I suppose we should have known that Kahalani, who hails from a Yemenite family, would bring something new to the fore, a couple of months or so after releasing an in-your-face album by the name of Insaniya – “humanity” in Arabic.
Next week, on August 25-27, the Jerusalem Theater will run its annual End of Summer Festival, with a whole host of blockbuster items, from the Shabbat Baboker (Shabbat Morning) musical with numbers written by Yoni Rechter, to an intriguing confluence between Shem Tov Levy and Avi Lebovitch and his Orchestra. There is also plenty of fare tailored to younger audiences, including a delightful confluence between high-energy percussionist Chen Zimbalista and a Sixties show for kids. The festival is a multidisciplinary arts event, which looks at the interface between stage and screen.
For his part, Kahalani is certainly doing his bit to keep the style and genre spread as expansive as possible.
Around five years ago he got together with a bunch of similarly open-minded musicians to form the Yemen Blues group, which generally plays a high-octane mix of Yemenite songs, shot through with soul and other black music sentiments.
Kahalani has been entrusted with the closing slot of the End of Summer Festival, at 9:30 p.m. on August 27, which will feature his band together with the numerically and acoustically voluminous addition of the 20-member Gospel Choir.
“I am very excited about this project,” says the 36-year-old singer. “I have written new songs, including in English, which is something new for me.” In general, the Yemen Blues material is sung in Yemenite Arabic or Hebrew.
There is the incremental personnel jump too.
“There will be 27 of us on the stage,” Kahalani notes, adding that, far from being overawed by the size of the artist lineup, he would have liked to have had more, a lot more, people on the stage with him.
“I wanted to have a 50-piece choir for the show but, as usual, logistics got in the way.”
The choir comprises members of the Black Hebrew community of Dimona who have Afro-American roots, and for whom singing gospel is as natural as inhaling and exhaling. “They are wonderful people and amazing singers,” says Kahalani. “They live and breathe the music. Some of them grew up in the church.”
Despite the fact that, for now at least, the End of Summer Festival show is a one-off, Kahalani is investing great effort in the project, and hopes there will be more where this is coming from, and it won’t only be about black liturgical music.
“We will perform Yemen Blues material as well as the gospel stuff,” explains the singer. “We will do five new songs, including three I have written especially for the Jerusalem show.”
Yemen Blues audiences always get their money’s worth in terms of sonic and visual entertainment, and it looks like the Jerusalem gig will be no different. Some of the numbers have already been tried out.
“The new songs are very exciting,” continues Kahalani, “and we have received really good feedback on them. And there are gospel songs that come straight from the church.”
The singer says that the synthesis of his band’s original stylistic swathe, together with what the choir will bring to the fray, offers much in the way of cross-fertilization benefits and augments his artistic spectrum.
“I think that adds another angle to the whole thing. With all the influences of Yemen Blues – the blues, jazz, punk and others – we have never connected with gospel.”
The choral connection has also been a long train coming.
“I have always dreamt of working with a choir,” says Kahalani, adding that he received another push in the right direction earlier this year. “I was in Paris and I saw a concert at the Philharmonie [de Paris] with [Lebanese- born, Paris-based trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf and [Malian-born hip hop musician] Oxmo Puccino and they had a Radio France choir of 60 children. It was amazing, and I got this project, for Jerusalem, just at the right time.”
Kahalani has big plans for the show.
“I want to take it to the United States, and perform in churches and other places. I’d like to develop this project further.”
But, for Kahalani, volume is not the be all and end all. Anyone who has attended a Yemen Blues show, or heard one of the band’s albums, will know that the singer never pulls any punches, and always goes for broke, both in terms of the musical output as well as the emotion and spirit he puts into it.
“We are basically talking about soul music here,” he notes. “The instrumental side and the vocal side knit well together, and are closely connected at the root. If you look back in history, you see that Africa influenced North Africa, and North Africa influenced the Western world, and vice versa. The Western world also influenced others. We are all connected, and we all have a tradition of soul music.”
Kahalani is perfectly happy to take the hybrid route.
“I think you can find moments in the new music I composed for the festival, where you have gospel music with harmony of Arabic strings underneath,” he says.
The sonic fireworks at the gospel concert will be enhanced by a striking visual backdrop based on photographic items created by Zohar Ron and Ori Ben-Shabat.
At the end of the day, for Kahalani, music has to hit him where it matters.
“I don’t come from the intellectual side of music,” he declares. “For me music is totally intuitive, and I work off my instincts and emotions. That is what we will try to give the audience in Jerusalem.”
For tickets and more information: (02) 560-5755 and