Author: Ellen Grant
*All views are those of the writers and contributors of this blog
Despite the hyper-connectedness of our world, the borderless reach of the internet, the multiculturalism of our cities, it has, in recent times, felt like our societies are starting to splinter. Our differences are being touted as a threat rather than an opportunity; barriers are being built rather than broken. Working against this trend is Ravid Kahalani and his musical collective, Yemen Blues, who use their art to transcend borders, stereotypes and limitations.
Yemen Blues is a celebration of diversity. Alongside Kahalani, the core members of the group are Shanir Blumenkranz, Itamar Doari and Rony Irwyn, who hail from NYC, Tel Aviv and Uruguay respectively, although they collaborate with artists from all over the world. The result is a joyful, celebratory discography which defies categorisation, but is clear in its message – to bring people together. ‘The music of Yemen Blues touches a lot of different people, who are not really different. In the sound of Yemen Blues there are many sounds of different cultures, sounds from all over the world, so everybody can feel a part of it,’ Ravid says.
Growing up in the mountains of Israel, Ravid’s childhood was infused with the musicality of his Yemeni Jewish heritage. He felt connected to the prayers, the singing and the chants and says that these traditions allowed him to find a voice and become a better singer. Whilst influenced by this background, the sound of Yemen Blues, which he formed in 2010, finds its inspiration in a myriad of sources. Ravid remembers first being encouraged to compose after listening to African music, which in turn led to his appreciation of jazz, blues and funk. He credits African music with showing him how different cultures and genres of music are actually connected to one another, ‘When I started to listen to African music, I saw the connections of all cultures of music and I was able to be very influenced by that and find myself singing in a way which was influenced in a lot of different ways, from the Afro-American world to African and Arabic music - everything kind of came together.’ This also led to the crystallisation of Ravid’s vision for his music, ‘I want to reconnect cultures, and for people to remember that culture is pretty much always built from another culture, as we are built from each other’.
It wasn’t long until the magic of Yemen Blues was recognised by the wider world. After collaborating with Omar Avitel on their first album, Kahalani sent a few demos to the Israeli journalist Dubi Lenz, who championed the groups’ music and arranged for them to perform at Babel Med in Marseille. Overnight, Yemen Blues became a respected name on the world music scene, and their trajectory has been only upwards since. They have played all over the world, to thousands of people, spreading a message of unity and acceptance. Asked whether the group has achieved its goal of bridging the gap between cultures, Ravid says the answer can be seen in the demographic of the audiences they attract, ‘[we] see Israeli and Jewish people alongside of Yemeni Muslims from Brooklyn and Christian Americans, all together in the same room connecting to the same things.’
Whilst the objective of Yemen Blues to bring people together, regardless of creed or colour, is noble and necessary, it could be perceived as an idealistic naivety. Ravid believes, however, that this sincerity is needed, ‘Ithink people don’t really see being naïve as something that will help, but I certainly do. I think people need to be more simple before they are shouting whatever they are shouting about, sharing their opinion on things in life when they really forget what it’s all about in the most simple way.’ Perhaps wars and conflicts may not be solved through the medium of music, but the songs of Yemen Blues are a beacon of optimism and hope in a world which seems to be fracturing apart. Their message of universality is an act of joyous rebellion.
Interview with Ravid Kahalani
You’re in Israel now? Are you there for anything in particular or just visiting?
I am based between New York and Israel, so I go between.
How do you find going between two such different places?
I don’t know, everything is different really so it is hard to say.
Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up?
I grew up in the mountains in Israel with my parents. My father came from Yemen and my mother was born when they [my grandparents] came to Israel in ‘49 from Yemen. They are Yemeni Jews and I grew up on a really religious Yemeni Jewish culture, which includes lots of prayers and singing and chants and all sorts of stuff that I connected to. All sorts of special melodies that combines the Yemeni – it is similar to the Yemeni Muslim but it’s also a little bit different. The Jewish Yemeni has a little bit of different melodies in some songs and prayers and blessings and stuff. So yeah, I grew up in a religious Yemeni Jewish family, and I believe a lot of the traditions helped me to be a better singer, even though my love to sing was always there in a very strong way.
And did you play musical instruments when you were younger as well, or did you come to that later in life?
Not really. I was playing the guitar but not much more than that. Today I also play some percussion and some Guembri, which is a Gnawa instrument.
Were your parents supportive of you pursuing a musical career?
Yeah, very much so. I mean yeah, they wanted me to have a proper job for money, but I guess since Yemen Blues was pretty successful, they were happy.
How did Yemen Blues begin?
Yemen Blues began when I started to listen to African music. After that, I became very influenced by a lot of jazz and blues and funk. When I started to listen to African music, I saw the connections of all cultures of music and I was able to be very influenced by that and find myself singing in a way which was influenced in a lot of different ways, from the Afro-American world to African and Arabic music - everything kind of came together. That was also the beginning of the goal of what I am creating and the message that I want people to remember. To reconnect cultures and to remember that culture is pretty much always built from another culture, as we are built from each other.
So, I started to compose some songs that was influenced by lots of that. Then I met Omer Avitel, who is an Israeli-American jazz musician. We started to work on the sound of Yemen Blues. Itamar Doari and Rony Irwyn, both of them on different percussion, were also involved in the process. Itamar Borochov and a few more were also part of the process of the first album.
Then I sent a few demos to Dubi Lenz, who is a music journalist from Israel, and he got very excited and arranged for us to do our first show in 2010 in Babel Med, France, in Marseilles. Overnight we became the hottest thing in the world music scene, and we got booked for a lot of shows. Since then we have been travelling all over the world, till today.
Your music has a very uniting force. It draws people from all backgrounds together. Is it important for you to cross boundaries by collaborating with musicians from all walks of life? Do you think that is more important at the moment?
Yes, we basically collaborate with people from all over the world. After the first year that Omer Avital was with us, Shanir Blumenkranz who is from New York, became part of the group and still is today. The second album was officially produced by Bill Laswell, but all the arrangements and everything were by us; by Shanir Blumenkranz and Itamar Doari and Omer Avital and Rony Irwyn. Rony Irwyn is originally from Uruguay, Itamar Doari is originally from Israel.
We collaborate with lots of other people. We collaborated with Oxmo Puccino from France, we collaborated with Mariem Hassan. Sadly, she died a few years ago, after we recorded her. She was an incredible singer. We collaborated with Ahmed Alshaiba, who is from Yemen. Many others, some more from New York that became part of the group in some way or another. It is hard to remember them all. We have been working with musicians from all over the world.
We want to keep collaborating with the New York gospel choirs from the United States for a new project we have coming up. But mainly it’s because the example of what I am, that I am Jewish but then I sing in a way that sounds very much like the Arabic world. That is because of the way the Yemeni from Yemen were singing and pronouncing. Even though some things are in Hebrew, some things are in Arabic. Even when we pray in Hebrew it sounds like Arabic because the pronunciation is Arabic pronunciation. We use the letters exactly how the Arabic use it, so it sounds the same. Because of this mix of what I am, I come between the Jewish world and the Arabic world, and my influences which are very strong that come from blues and gospel and all of that area, really kinds of gives the same kind of soulful feeling. In the new show that we are playing in November, we are going to present a new show based on Jewish prayer and Yemeni pronunciation, which will also host some gospel choirs. It will all come together into one sound kind of and yeah, that is what we try to do.
You said that your parents supported Yemen Blues because of its success. Have you found the industry to be supportive of your work?
I try to make as much music as I can but it is not easy. You know, when we talk about benefit events and things, people don’t give enough money to create music. Important music and art and music that specifically goes to helping people to develop, and making people remember how to be basic human beings in this world. This kind of culture of reconnecting is very important for people to understand. People with money need to realise this.
Lots of artists who give important things to this world don’t have the value of money in their lives because they don’t know and don’t really care about money, but their lives are pretty shitty because they can’t fight for their money or they don’t really know how to make money or make their work get more value. People with money just make more money and more money. There are so many good things happening and the system sadly works under very un-humanitarian rules or whatever it is, and really doesn’t give people who create such important things for this world, and for the people, an easy life.
I think people should invest more money in this, and the value of the work of the artists and the music that is specifically going to reconnecting cultures and humanitarian goals, should be supported much more. All the shit that is going on in countries like Yemen today, it’s all because of a very small percentage of basically lunatic people that control the country, and the system just gives them a lot of power.
I’m sure that most of the everyday people in Yemen are peaceful people that wants to recognise the other and wants to live a quiet life and see the beauty in whatever is around them. I think people don’t really see being naïve as something that will help but I certainly do. I think people need to be more simple before they are shouting whatever they are shouting about, sharing their opinion on things in life when they really forget what it’s all about in the most simple way.
You said that the aim of your music is to reconnect and reunify people through music. Do you think you have achieved that goal? Do you see it reflected back at you at the shows that you play and the fans that you meet?
Yes! Many of our shows all over the world, specifically lately I have seen that. It is growing and growing and I am hoping it will grow more and more. To see Israeli and Jewish people alongside of Yemeni Muslims from Brooklyn and Christian Americans, all together in the same room connecting to the same things. And they know who is beside them, and it’s important for me, for them to be there in the same room and be aware of this happening. We have had shows like that, where everyone feels like a part of one thing and this one thing is just being a human being and feeling that. The music of Yemen Blues touches a lot of different people, who are not really different. In the sound of Yemen Blues there are many sounds of different cultures, sounds from all over the world, so everybody can feel a part of it. This is very important for me.
I always get messages from all over the world but there are some that are the most exciting for me specifically, as a Yemeni Israeli Jew. I have been getting a lot of messages from Yemen, and Egypt, and Dubai, Tunisia and Syria, and from Turkey and lots of places. It specifically those countries that are around us that are really exciting for me. To see that they feel part of something that I present - because I am part of them and they are part of me. You know, more than anything, it’s less about me or them and just about seeing that in the everyday life of people.
I think that as much as governments today and lots of things happening in the system are happening in the wrong way, there are lots of good things happening, lots of awareness because we have the internet and it is really easy to see and discover things through the internet. This brings a lot of awareness in front of the small percentage of people who control the world under a horrible system of money and power and all kinds of bullshit politics that is basically like a child in kindergarten. Such serious things happening, people killing people or whatever it is, happens for the most stupid reasons. I think that people who have the power to give money and support to the good things that are happening, and remind people what it is in the most simple way, needs to give this money and needs to give more support. We need to raise the value of the work of the artist much higher, and give better lives to those who don’t know how to make money, and give them a better life to create more, and bring important work to this world. Those people who can support that need to support that much more.
The UN says that the situation in Yemen is world's worst man-made humanitarian disaster, and the worst famine in 100 years. Yet, many people are still unaware of what is going on in the country. Why do you think that is?
I think it comes back to the thing that the system is basically un-humanitarian. People always take care of themselves and their very closed environment. As much as people want to help, they choose to invest their energy in certain things in life and I think there are not enough people that really gives their energy to the greater good. I think that more people need to do that and if they don’t know how to do what needs done, then they need to just offer more support. I think that’s why people don’t really know. I mean, the world is not so big but also there are too many things that are happening, not only in Yemen, but also in many other places.
The truth is that everywhere you go you can see that the everyday people are just peaceful people. The percentage of the madness going on everywhere is just a very small percentage of people that have power because of how the system works. I don’t know, I think probably I don’t know about some other places that has a humanitarian disaster but I think the main goal is just to keep supporting beyond the closed environment and more to invest in the greater good.
You have toured all over the world – is there anywhere in particular that you haven’t been yet that you would still like to visit?
I would love to perform in Yemen. I would love to perform in many Arab countries to which I cannot currently go. I mean, everywhere is great but it is those places to which I cannot really go that I really hope to perform in the future.
Whatever we do, we need to keep doing that and there is lots of hope I think and lots of awareness on the internet and we should use that and support that as much as we can. The value of simple work and of cultural reconnecting. I think this is the next revolution that needs to happen.