Yemen Blues beneath a desert sky
According to one view of the world, Israel is a garrison state, a fortified enclave hemmed in by ever-threatening enemies. Examine the country from another perspective, however, and it’s also a teeming crossroads, recently enlivened by newcomers from such diverse locales as Morocco, Iraq, and the splintered “-stans” of the former U.S.S.R.
That’s the Israel Ravid Kahalani comes from, and as far as he’s concerned Tel Aviv is one of the musical centres of the world.
“There are lots and lots of great things that happen here,” he explains, reached by phone at his home in Israel’s largest city. “Great music, and great musicians—all kinds of stuff is happening here. I don’t know why, but I think the atmosphere here is very, very interesting.
“Israel is a really small place,” he continues, “and Tel Aviv is much more smaller. There are people that are coming up and every day you discover another one, another young guy who’s amazing. There is good education for music, but I guess the love for music is maybe because this is something really good that takes them out of all the things that are happening to them—and maybe they can make something better.”
The Israeli music scene is also small enough, he adds, that everyone knows everybody else, making for an intriguing cross-fertilization of styles, ranging from traditional Jewish music to state-of-the-art electronic pop. That seems to be borne out by the various hybrid approaches that have emerged from Tel Aviv of late. Notable figures include jazz bassist Avishai Cohen, who features Jewish melodies in his adventurous music, and songwriter Idan Raichel, who gave Kahalani a major career boost by including him as one of the featured singers in his multicultural Idan Raichel Project.
As of yet, no Israeli artists have become global superstars. There’s a huge buzz building around Kahalani’s Yemen Blues band in his native land, however, and based on its self-titled debut CD, there’s also a good chance that the world won’t take long to get onboard. In fact, the Israeli singer may be bound for the kind of international fame that Jamaica’s Bob Marley enjoyed before his untimely death, and not only because they share chiselled good looks and abundant on-stage charisma. Like the late reggae pioneer, Kahalani offers a sophisticated take on a roots-based style, surrounds himself with superb musicians, and is able to connect with listeners on a deeply emotional level.
Before we get into the other reasons why Kahalani deserves your attention, though, there’s one thing that should probably be clarified: Yemen Blues doesn’t sound anything like American blues. There are no repetitious 12-bar cadences, boogie rhythms, or my-baby-done-me-wrong choruses in Kahalani’s music. Instead, his band owes its name to the singer’s fascination with the music of the Saharan region, as exemplified by the influential 1998 compilation Desert Blues, which was Kahalani’s introduction to such artists as Ali Farka Touré, Baaba Maal, and Oumou Sangaré. Of course, there’s a good case to be made for the idea that blues music as we know it in North America owes its existence to the West African heritage of many plantation slaves, but otherwise Kahalani’s connection to, say, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf is tangential, at best.
“For me, blues is a very wide world,” he explains. “The blues actually started before it was blues. It came from Africa, all these kinds of influences, all this slave singing. It came from there. So you can go to Yemen or many places in Africa, and the technique is similar. It’s the same blues; it’s the same soul singing. And even deeper than that, when a guy is sitting and singing the blues in Mississippi and a guy is singing the Yemenite chants, for me it’s the same thing. It comes from the same place, and it’s going to the same place.”
Kahalani goes deeper into his love of Saharan music on Yemen Blues’s title track. “When I started to write it I had a girl in my life, so I started to write it about her,” he says. “But, literally, when I wrote the song, I really understood in the middle of the writing that it’s much deeper than that. It’s about my love for the desert, the Sahara Desert, even though I’ve never been there. I love so much the music from Mali, I love so much the music from Mauritania. I really feel it in my blood. I don’t know how to explain it, but I can sing it and I can understand it. I feel their music so much that I have this kind of blind love for the Sahara Desert. And this is what I’m singing: ”˜A new love has come into my life, and it’s bringing me to life. Even if I was dead, alone, your touch would bring me to life.’ ”
That said, an Israeli singing pure West African music, no matter how convincingly, could never be more than an ethnological curiosity. What sets Yemen Blues apart is the way in which Kahalani and his collaborators integrate other musical elements into their mix. Bassist Omer Avital, for instance, writes gorgeous, jazz-tinged horn arrangements that somehow sit perfectly next to string charts that recall, in miniature, the great Arab orchestras of Egypt and Lebanon. And the 32-year-old Kahalani himself draws heavily on the music he grew up with as the Israeli-born child of Jewish Yemenite parents: fervid and sinuous settings of the Torah and other religious texts.
That he once turned his back on that style only adds to his passion for it today.
“My father came from Yemen, from a place called Kohlan,” he relates. “Actually, my last name is Kohlani, but here they changed it a bit because of the Hebrew and stuff, so it became Kahalani.
“I was raised by him with quite a strict way of traditional Yemenite ceremony,” he continues. “I had to learn how to read, how to pray, how to sing in Yemeni—the Yemenite chants and Yemenite songs. Back then, I didn’t really like it, but now I thank God that I know it, because it’s helped me for my singing a lot. It’s a big part of my singing.”
He’s also rediscovered the language that his parents abandoned after fleeing Yemen for Israel in the 1950s: Arabic. And although Kahalani professes to be absolutely apolitical, there might be something to the notion that a Jew singing in the primary language of the Muslim world is making some kind of statement.
“There are many gods, many politics,” he says. “But I believe that, for all their opinions or religions, everyone can have a basic understanding. And one of the greatest things in this world for that is music. You can go and hear African music and you don’t know what they’re talking about; you don’t understand the words, but the music is just going really deep into you. And I think this is something people don’t appreciate enough. They might go, ”˜Okay, this is really, really deep and emotional,’ but they don’t take it as a way of life. So one of my biggest purposes in Yemen Blues’s music is to bring people the understanding to take it outside the concert hall, that moment of the soul in which they can connect with each other in their everyday life.
“I just hope that we can bring something really true to people—something they can take into their everyday life as a message, as something that will influence politicians and religion,” he adds. “And, yeah, most of all we just want to make people groove.”