Back to Blues

After experimenting with various musical genres - from to opera to African to punk - singer Ravid Kahalani has returned to his Yemenite roots.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

When singer Ravid Kahalani takes the stage tomorrow to perform his show "Yemen Blues" at the annual Festijazz series at the Givatayim Theater, listeners will be treated to the many musical stations of his career. They begin with his experiences with a "hamori" (a Yemenite rabbi and teacher ), to whom he was sent at the age of 10 to study Torah. Kahalani's father, an immigrant from Yemen who had taken up religious practice, wanted to strengthen his children's bonds to Yemenite Jewish traditions.

Ravid Kahalani.Credit: Zohar Ron

"The boys sat on both sides of a long table, while the hamori stood holding a stick," Kahalani told Haaretz this week. "There weren't enough books, so one child read right-side up and the one across the table from him had to read upside down. If you made the tiniest mistake, if you breathed in the wrong place, you'd get hit with the stick. I didn't get hit much because my father had already taught me separately, and because I was good at it."

As Kahalani grew up and began to sing professionally, he distanced himself from Yemenite music. In recent years, he has performed just about every other style, including soul and punk. He even studied opera and practically became an expert in Serbian church music (after confirming that Jewish religious law allows Jews to do so ). Kahalani then plunged into the depths of the blues, and after that discovered the music of western Africa. He has finally returned to Yemenite music, bringing to bear influences from his diverse experiences (with the exception, perhaps, of Serbian church songs - but even that isn't a given ). The result is "Yemen Blues."

Kahalani's latest show certainly has its roots in his earlier "Desert Blues," created after musician Alon Amano Campino introduced him to songs from north and west Africa by such greats as Ali Farka Toure, Salif Keita and Hamza el Din. Kahalani, who had never been exposed to African music before, says that when he heard it for the first time "it blew me away." He listened to the songs over and over, learned to imitate the style of the singers ("I have a natural talent for this," he says ) and put on a show with Amano Campino, performing songs in various African languages he does not even understand: Sudanese, Mauritian, Nubian and Bambara.

The musician Idan Raichal was among those who saw "Desert Blues," and as a result he added Kahalani to his band as a singer. Another musician who noticed him was Yisrael Borochov, leader of the East-West Ensemble, who invited Kahalani to sing with him and contrabassist Omer Avital in their Debka Fantasia project - new and marvelous renditions of songs by Mordechai Zeira, Yedidya Admon, Matityahu Shelem and Nahum Nardi. Debka Fantasia still performs now and then (the album came out six months ago ), but Kahalani and Avital also branched out in a new direction - which led them to Kahalani's roots.

This transition began unexpectedly, after Kahalani split up with someone he had been close to. A song came out of this separation, which he felt the need to sing in the Yemeni language, though he can't explain why. Since he understands the language but does not have a good command of it, he asked a friend to translate his words for him. He later recorded the song himself and sent it to Avital, a gifted jazz musician, in New York. Avital arranged the song and developing the harmonies; then Kahalani came up with two more songs, which Avital arranged as well. They found three musicians (percussionists Itamar Doari and Roni Evron and trumpeter Itamar Borochov ), and were later joined by four more (trombonist Avi Leibovitch, cellist Hila Epstein, viola player Galia Hai and flutist Hadar Neuberg ). "Yemen Blues" began to take shape.

The Yemenite element stems from Kahalani's background, but where do the blues come from? Kahalani fell in love with blues a few years ago, in particular with the great blues singers of the 1930s and '40s - Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson, Leadbelly - and has performed their songs with guitarist Uzi Feinerman. Kahalani sees a clear connection between singing Yemenite music and the blues, adding that singing blues "gave my sound something more mature and dirtier, the pain of older people."

A few months ago, Kahalani and the nine musicians participating in "Yemen Blues" went to Marseille to perform at the Babel Med world music festival. "There was insane pressure. We had only four songs and had to add four more very quickly, but we got on stage in front of 1,500 people and brought the house down," Kahalani says proudly. The review in the French paper Liberation the next day proves he is not exaggerating.

Blurring the lines at Festijazz
Festijazz, opening today and continuing through Saturday night, blurs the borders between jazz and other musical styles (as might be expected from a festival directed by Dubi Lentz), offering a richly varied program that includes fusions of jazz, groove, world music, Hebrew music and even avant garde punk-klezmer.

The festival will kick off with a performance by Yoni Rechter and contrabassist Yorai Oron, which will focus on Rechters jazz and instrumental side. Additional bands set to appear on opening night include the Israeli Allstar Sextet (Omer Avital, Daniel Zamir, Omri Mor, Avi Lebovich, Itamar Borochov and Aviv Cohen), and Canaani Groove led by drummer Shai Vetzer.

Tomorrow, in addition to Yemen Blues, the Israel Conservatory of Musics Big Band will make an appearance hosting Marina Maximilian Blumin and Maalox, the excellent duo of saxophonist Eyal Talmudi and drummer Hagai Freshtman. Two duos will perform Saturday night: Shlomi Shaban with Eli Jabari; and pianist Alon Yavnai and percussionist Djuka Perpignan. Festijazz closes with the terrific band Kruzenshtern & Parohod, and judging by their opening performance for the Secret Chiefs 3 last Monday, theyll be well worth seeing.



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