'Music Is My Religion'

Blues, funk, soul, jazz and, in particular, Yemenite elements can all be heard in the eclectic mix that is Ravid Kahalani's repertoire.

Lea Penn
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Lea Penn

Singer Ravid Kahalani's apartment in the trendy Basel neighborhood of north Tel Aviv is furnished in Moroccan style, and he's Skype-ing in English with the mother of his daughter back in Finland. Next to a black piano stands a three-string bass instrument called a guembri, and the suitcases lying partially open on the floor give the place the appearance of a hotel room.

Kahalani's songs are somewhat eclectic - largely based on lyrics in Yemeni Arabic in various dialects (along with Hebrew and some gibberish ), against a background of traditional Yemeni music as well as blues, funk, soul and jazz. Nevertheless, the cultural mixture that constitutes the base for the music Kahalani creates with his band, Yemen Blues, is what spurs thousands of people from different cultures around the world to connect to his sound.

Kahalani's eclectic sound connects him with listeners from all over the world. Credit: Or Harpaz

Ever since the Israel-based band's debut at the well-known world music festival Babel Med in Marseille a year and a half ago, before an audience of 1,500, Yemen Blues has been unstoppable.

"People were just dancing like crazy, there was an energy there that put me in a state of shock," Kahalani recalls. "The next day an article appeared in the French newspaper Liberation that said we were the success story of the festival. The whole band was on a high. A few months later we were accepted to WOMEX [an expo for the world music industry] and even before we got there, the buzz was that we were going to be the best show. We certainly got off to an incredible start. That's it. Now we're here."

In addition to performances here about a month ago to mark the launch of their first, eponymous album, Yemen Blues has three more shows lined up at home (July 7 at the Barby club in Tel Aviv; July 8 at Jerusalem's Yellow Submarine; and July 9 at the Sunbeat Festival in the Galilee ). These are part of the band's 30-concert world tour, which will include performances in New York's Central Park and at the Roskilde Festival in Germany, alongside the likes of Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys and P.J. Harvey.

"Ravid is doing very well with the direction he chose," says Army Radio broadcaster and music editor Dubi Lenz, who also directs jazz and world music festivals. "It's a combination of Yemeni texts and soul music that is influenced by blues from Africa and the Tuareg tribe, as well as the Bedouin of the Sahara Desert, and it is the basis for American blues."

"Ravid was greatly influenced by [the Tuareg] style, and his connection with Omer Avital is amazing," Lenz adds, referring to the contrabassist and oud player responsible for Yemen Blue's musical production and arrangements. "The combination of the two of them with the texts and the music creates something. It was obvious to me that it would wow audiences around the world. It's a sound that didn't exist until now. I saw them perform in a lot of places and I hear the responses. [Their music] is only going to burst on ahead, assuming they can figure out how to stay together: It's hard to keep nine egos together."

These nine egos belong to Kahalani and Avital, percussionists Itamar Duary and Rony Iwryn, trumpeter Itamar Borochov, trombonist Avi Lebovich, cellist Hila Epstein, violist Galia Hai, and flutist Hadar Noiberg. They came together in a rather arbitrary manner. After Kahalani went through a romantic breakup, he wrote a song and felt a need to sing it in Yemenite, the Arabic of Yemen's Jews. Since he understands the language but is not fluent in it, he asked an acquaintance to translate the text from Hebrew. Then he recorded it himself and sent the recording to Avital, who lives in New York. Avital, a gifted jazz musician, began arranging and developing the song. Later on the two invited the rest of the musicians into a local rehearsal space, and in one session, laid down the first four tracks of "Yemen Blues."

"We've never defined our sound," Kahalani says. "It's not like we said: 'We'll do a mix of Yemeni music with this or that style.' Everyone brought something of himself to the sound of Yemen Blues and we achieved a certain result."

The band later sent a recording to Lenz, who helped get them into the world music festival in Marseille.

'Raised on tradition'

Ravid Kahalani was born in Bat Yam 33 years ago, the third of seven children, to parents who emigrated from Yemen. His father, who had become religiously observant as a child (and who translates the texts for him from Hebrew, along with vocalist Zion Golan ), wanted to strengthen his children's bond with Yemeni Jewish tradition and sent them to study with a mori, or Yemeni Torah tutor.

"I was pretty good at it, but I didn't particularly like it," Kahalani recalls today. "My father would make us sit and read 'Va'yiten le'kha ha'elohim' every Saturday night," he says with a grin, referring to the verses traditionally recited in the evening service at the end of Shabbat, "and only if we did it properly would he allow us to go out and play soccer. I was raised on a lot of Yemeni music, I was raised on tradition, on reading the Torah. Every time I sang, I would sing with a guttural het, ayin and resh. To this day I sing like that because it just feels most natural to me. At home we'd sing in Arabic, but speak in Hebrew for Zionistic reasons. I remember myself as a little boy laughing at people who sang in the synagogue with a Yemeni accent but use a regular letter resh. It's pretty strange that this is what cracked me up as a kid."

When he was 15 his parents moved to the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh. "It's their life and it's not my place to talk about it," Kahalani says now. Soon after, he himself quit school and left home. First he lived briefly in Holon, then moved to Tel Aviv and worked at an array of odd jobs. At 18 he enrolled in the Nissan Nativ Acting School.

"An acting teacher apparently fell in love with my eyes and invited me to study there in the preparatory program," he explains. "The high point of my acting career was when I played Yigal Amir in a play titled 'Haluda' ['Rust'] at the Acco Festival."

After completing that program, he tried his hand at ballet. "I studied privately and my teacher wanted to get me into the Kibbutz Dance Company, but I wasn't into it."

Judging by a Yemen Blues show a month ago at the Zappa Club, however, it's evident that his love affair with the dance world was not fleeting. Kahalani, who took to the stage dressed in baggy sharwal pants and a black button-down shirt that revealed a chest adorned with a heavy silver necklace, drove the crowd wild not only with his voice, but also with his pelvic movements. They seemed like a combination of Yemeni steps, ecstatic tribal dance and cat-like, James Brown-ish movements.

Kahalani's professional journey reached a critical turning point when choreographer Yossi Yungman invited him to sing in the dance show "Joy" at the 2003 Israel Festival.

"There for the first time I was on stage as a singer, performing in front of 1,000 people," he explains. "I was on a high for several hours afterward. On stage, when I was singing, I realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life."

Since his youth, Kahalani has been listening to soul and funk music, Stevie Wonder and Prince, sang the blues, and even flirted with the idea of learning Serbian liturgical music, which he fell in love with after buying a couple of CDs on a trip to that country. That possibility was shelved in favor of pursuing studies in operatic singing in Paris - an idea that was also set aside "because I suddenly began to sing in Arabic."

Musician Alon Amano introduced Kahalani to a compilation album of North and West African songs performed by great singers such as Ali Farka Toure, Salif Keita and Hamza el Din. "I simply fell in love with this music," Kahalani says. "It blew my mind."

Amano and Kahalani joined forces in a joint concert called "Desert Blues" in which they performed songs in various African languages. Yisrael Borochov, leader of the East-West Ensemble, caught one of their performances and invited Kahalani to join his and Omer Avital's project Debka Fantasia, featuring musicians performing their own versions of old Israeli songs by Mordechai Zeira, Yedidia Admon and others.

Another musician who saw "Desert Blues" and was impressed by Kahalani's talent was Idan Raichel, who invited him to sing with him in an acoustic performance, and later to join the Idan Raichel Project and go on tour with the group around the world.

"I was very excited by his singing and I was really delighted that he's joined the Project's performances in recent years," Raichel says. "In our shows and also on recordings for the live concert album that is coming out soon, all of the singers and musicians bring something of themselves to the songs. Ravid brings a new and refreshing energy, and he and the audience have a special connection."

Kahalani returns Raichel's compliment: "In the past three years I traveled with him a lot, and working with him is one of the most important things that has happened to me. He's a very special person; to work with him is to learn many things, from music to business."

Opera and James Brown

Dubi Lenz has a clear memory of Kahalani's acoustic show with Raichel. "Besides him there were five people on stage and the moment he came on I forgot all about the others," he says. "He simply astounded me. His voice, his charisma. He's got that certain something that many artists seek - an ability to reach inside the heart of the person sitting all the way in the last row. Afterward I went backstage and told him he was going to be a big star. He looked at me in surprise and said, 'You think so?' And I said, 'I know so.' He's a type of copycat: He can sing opera, he can sing James Brown better than James Brown. He needed to go in one particular direction and he chose a special one."

"There's something in my culture that I admire, which I missed out on when I moved away from it," Kahalani confesses. "So I came back to it with everything that is me - with all the baggage, the influences and the nuances."

Do you see your job as helping to clarify the blurred cultural identity of the Yemenites who immigrated to Israel?

Kahalani: "I really hope to do something about it. When my parents came here in the 1950s, there was an attempt to turn Israel into a European country, and that was a mistake. People arrived here from all sorts of places. Yemeni culture in itself is very strong and beautiful. But back then it was not cool to speak Arabic or be Mizrahi or listen to Mizrahi music."

Was there a stage in your childhood when you felt ashamed of your roots?

"No, because by the time I was a kid it was different. Today it's even the opposite situation; it's really hip. I'm not talking about Mizrahi music specifically, but rather about music from [different] cultures: It is much more cool, not just in Israel but everywhere in the world."

Kahalani interrupts the interview for a few minutes to take a Skype call from the Finnish mother of his daughter. How does he combine frequent tours around the world with raising a 2-year-old girl, we ask.

"I am working hard like this now so that at a later stage I'll be able to be in charge of my time and have more of it for what's important to me. But that is something I would rather not waste words on in a media interview."

What he does "waste words on" is his own, roughly formulated but well-intentioned manifesto about accepting "the other" and changing energies in the world. "I realize that music is my religion," says Kahalani - and as this comment comes out of his mouth, passion replaces the weariness that characterized the beginning of our conversation.

"This is what I want to say to the world. I write texts about all sorts of things that I feel - about humanity coming before religion, before politics, before money. Music is the most communicative thing there is. I say in one song: '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.' This was conceived from things I see at our shows: people coming to the same performance from different cultures, with different political views, and a religion that argues one way or another. And they connect to the same thing in the same place. And even though this music wasn't conceived from their culture, it moves them and opens their heart. This might sound to some people like some sort of cliche - like, here's another guy who wants to talk about love and peace with his music - but it's a way of life for me."



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