Yemen and the southern United States might seem worlds apart, but Ravid Kahalani saw similarities between their musical flavors.
“He saw some connections there that were historical,” bandmate Omer Avital said of Kahalani. “He creates connections that were less obvious before him, for example, between Yemenite music and blues, African music and rock. He has his own kind of voice.”
Kahalani and Avital perform together as part of Yemen Blues, a band that fuses jazz, soul, funk, traditional Yemen music and other genres in their work. The lyrics are mainly in Arabic.
On Aug. 14 at 8 p.m., Yemen Blues will make its way to World Cafe Live to give Philadelphia a taste of music that draws its inspiration from around the world.
“It’s not based on any kind of music,” Kahalani said. “It’s based on a lot of influences and cultures. We’re trying to just evolve music into a place, to show people that a lot of our culture is actually part of [another] culture.”
Kahalani sings and plays the gimbri, a northern African lute, while Avital plays bass and oud, an African and Middle Eastern string instrument. They will be joined for their performance by drummer Ofri Nehemya; Shanir Blumenkranz, who plays bass and oud; and keyboardist Tomer Bar.
Kahalani grew up in a Yemeni family in Israel, listening to Yemeni Jewish music. In his teen years, his musical tastes expanded as he began listening to Pink Floyd and Bob Marley and discovered genres such as funk, blues and jazz. African-American artists eventually became his biggest musical influences.
Then he started listening to African music and everything clicked.
“It changed my life in the way that it was connecting everything for me,” Kahalani said. “I understood that my Yemeni heritage is connected to Africa. It teaches me the fact that we are all influenced by each other. … It was the missing part of understanding what music is all about.”
Yemen borders Saudi Arabia and is as close as 17 miles from the Horn of Africa, so its music is primarily Arabic with East African influences. Meanwhile, many American genres of music, such as blues, jazz and funk, trace their roots to Africa.
“Whether it’s jazz or it’s Prince or it’s Michael Jackson, that music is all over the world,” said Avital, who is Israeli with Yemeni and Moroccan ancestry. “For [Kahalani], the knowledge of singing Yemenite music very clearly and using his voice in a very specific way is an easy slide into how Prince would sing or Stevie Wonder because they may be using similar techniques with their throat and voice and feelings that exist also in East Africa and Yemen.”
This connection between Yemenite, African and more contemporary genres of American music served as the inspiration for Kahalani’s project, Yemen Blues.
Kahalani started Yemen Blues with Avital in 2010. Avital has a background as a jazz musician and is more of an arranger, while Kahalani is more of a songwriter, so they both had something to contribute.
“[Avital] was not only a theory genius, he is all about music,” Kahalani said. “He’s one of the greatest musicians I know.”
The musicians in the group often change for different performances based on location. Many in the group are Israeli with some Yemeni heritage. Other players hail from the United States and Uruguay. Each of them, Kahalani said, brings their own background into their music.
Nehemya, for example, is Israeli with Yemeni and Indian heritage. He grew up in a family of musicians and has a jazz musician background. He said most Yemenites in Israel listen to Israeli music, and performing as part of Yemen Blues has given him an opportunity to connect to his ethnic background and bring in “the authentic grooves that [he] heard from home.”
For Yemen Blues’ upcoming show, Nehemya said the audience can expect a show that is both emotional and upbeat.
“It gets emotional because [Kahalani] is an emotional singer, and he gets into it,” Nehemya said. “He sings his heart out. It could be a party, and all the audience usually claps and dances and gets crazy. It doesn’t matter what age you are. The energy of this show and the groove and the whole experience is just really uplifting.”
Kahalani said music represents how people change each other and grow.
“For thousands of years, we’ve been fighting each other for stupid things because the nature of man is to take something for himself, claim something for himself. He can be much stronger when he shares something. … I see music as a mirror to how we should act because we are all influenced by each other,” Kahalani said. “Being influenced allows people to evolve.”
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