The Arty Semite

Them Low Down Yemen Blues

By John Semley

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Courtesy Yemen Blues
Yemen Blues front man Ravid Kahalani

World music is a disingenuous marker for a genre. Besides presuming that popular forms of western (that is, American) music like pop, rock, rap, soul and country-western are something other than of the world, the term “world music” tends to flatten the rich idiosyncrasies and particularities of music coming from all corners of the globe. It makes filing CDs at your local HMV or Virgin Superstore easier. But that’s about it.

But Yemen Blues, the most exciting touring band out of Israel (with apologies, Monotonix), are different. Mixing traditional Yemenite music with soul, blues, and West African rhythms, the group’s claim to the “world music” moniker is well-earned. “The sense of the band, especially in industry circles, is that this band is the hottest thing,” said Eric Stein, artistic director of the Ashkenaz Foundation in Toronto, Canada. So when Stein heard that the band was plotting a North American tour, he scrambled to schedule a Toronto date. (Yemen Blues plays in Toronto on February 26 before dipping south of the border for dates in Chicago on February 27, Los Angeles on March 6, and New York on March 9, among others.) “I’d been hearing rumblings for months that there was this hot new thing coming out of Israel. And my ears always perk up to that kind of thing.”

Led by singer, percussionist and band leader Ravid Kahalani, whom National Geographic has hailed as “ridiculously charismatic,” Yemen Blues fuses the musical backgrounds of its nine musicians. There’s a jazz trombonist, a classical viola player, veteran percussionists from The Idan Raichel Project, and just about everything in between.

“To me, Yemen Blues stands out as something really, really special,” said Stein. “It’s not just Jewish music and not just Israeli music and not just world music, but all of those things. They’re bringing together streams of Jewish identity, Israeli identity, and a cosmopolitan world identity. They’re mixing and matching from a lot of different traditions and synthesizing it into something that is really unique.”

What stands out among the group’s sundry influences, though, are the African music traditions reflected in their name. “I was into all kinds of black music, especially soul and blues,” Kahalani told the Jerusalem Post last May. “My dad also made sure we could read from the Torah, and we sang Shabbat songs and at the synagogue, so I think I got a well-rounded musical education.”

The intersection of black music and Kahalani’s Jewish-Israeli identity courses through Yemen Blues’ incredibly infectious music. The comparison between the two traditions has often been made (heck, experimental guitarist Gary Lucas mentioned it when we interviewed him a few months back), but Stein is able to explain the intersection elegantly. “I guess the idea is that from great suffering comes great music and great art,” he offered. “For example, klezmer music’s defined by happy, bouncy rhythms with mournful, minor key melodies that captures this bitter and sweet. It’s a paradox in the music. And I think that’s the commonality, or the intersection point, between whatever Jewish music influences or whatever American blues music influences are at the core of Yemen Blues’ music.”

Just as impressive as the group’s influences is their ability to effortlessly synthesize them, and to foster that rare sense of togetherness in the process. It’s the kind of thing that catches on quick. And Stein is certain the group is destined for big things. “I think people on this North American tour will be able to look back at these smaller shows and say, ‘I saw them when they played at a 300 person club and when you could talk to the band after the show.’ A few years from now this band is going to break so big that it’s going to be harder for people to say that.”

People of North America — and the world — take note.

Watch Yemen Blues play ‘Um Min al Yaman’:


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