“It doesn’t matter where you come from, your language is my language. It doesn’t matter to which God you are praying, because the melody always comes from the heart.” Speaking via phone from Israel, Ravid Kahalani is describing with a quiet intensity what he seeks to share with Yemen Blues, a super group of nine musicians – many of them stars in their own right -, which he co-founded with acclaimed bassist/oud player Omer Avital.
The artful and organically blended mélange of traditional Yemeni Jewish songs, Saharan blues, avant-garde chamber music and various percussion genres (even Latin) that characterizes Yemen Blues also reflects Kahalani’s own musical journey, which began with childhood experiences within traditional Yemenite and Jewish liturgical music. After moving away from his parents home, he also moved away from traditional sounds, and delved deeply into all sorts of blues and funk. “Prince, Sly and the Family Stone, Leadbelly, Black Willie Johnson… I was listening to all of these artists, all the time, but most of all – Stevie Wonder”, he describes. This period was followed by one of renewed interest in classical Arab music which simultaneously coincided with studies in France as a classically trained countertenor.
I experienced a Yemen Blues concert at the World Music Expo in Copenhagen last October, so I can witness to the fact that in some mysterious way, the contradictions and juxtapositions in their music have a captivating, mesmerizing universality – as if we could be hearing the common song of the human tribe. On the one hand, body and spirit seem to recognize ancient sounds, which then stray easily to the edges of classical, and all of a sudden transition into fiery and soulful blues – yet trust me on this one, the percussive element allows it to be incredibly danceable. With instruments as diverse as cellos, viola, horns, oud and percussion, the results are a sound that is all at once ultra modern and ancient, cerebral and intuitive, classical yet primal and tribal.
Kahalani explains that indeed, some of the elements of his compositions and their music are ancient. For example, he inserts words from international prayers into some of the lyrics of original compositions he sings in nearly twenty languages. Additionally some of the instruments he plays, such as olive cans, actually hearken back to a several thousand year-old Yemenite tradition; to symbolize their grief when the Temple was destroyed, Yemenis limited their music to vocals accompanied by percussion on olive oil cans and metal plates.
The rise of Yemen Blues as a group has been meteoric. They only played together for the first time just about a year ago at the acclaimed French festival of Babel Med, where they were a runaway hit. The opportunity to play this and other European festivals came after the group recorded a four-song EP whose video earned extensive critical acclaim and went viral on YouTube. Kahalani reminisces about his epiphany when the group was creating music for the first time: “It changed my life and made me realize that music is my religion…there was such harmony between us. We couldn’t believe how good we sounded, and couldn’t stop drinking cognac and dancing. It was one of the most magical times in my life.”
So the music is the message, he concludes. “What are all the politics in the world worth, if we have wars all the time? What are all the languages in the world worth if we talk and don’t understand each other? I want people to enjoy the music, and then take this moment of the soul outside the concert hall and take it as a way of life…because, at the end of the day, we all came here to be together and to sing”.
Ravid Kahalani and Yemen Blues perform Sunday February 27 at Old Town School of Folk Music.