In retrospect, it was a narrow escape.
Ravid Kahalani, singer and multi-instrumentalist, kinetic performer, restless explorer of genres and traditions, and an Israeli Jew from Tel Aviv, could have stayed on the path he embarked on a few years ago, and become a virtuoso performer of Serbian Orthodox liturgical singing.
And he would have been perfectly happy with that. “I was studying Orthodox church music, and I almost went to live in Serbia and sing in churches,” Kahalani says. “When I do something that I really love, I do it with all the passion. I get into learning it the most exact way that I can.”
Instead, Kahalani, who at the time had a background in funk and soul, veered off into North and West African music, singing exact covers of songs by the likes of Habib Koité, Ali Farka Touré, and Oumou Sangaré in an Israeli project called “Desert Blues” before segueing into a vocal spot in Israeli superstar Idan Raichel’s touring band.
Since 2010, Kahalani has fronted his own project, Yemen Blues, that distills a vivacious and unplaceable hybrid music that fairly brims with soul. It reflects the myriad influences that come into play when nine Israeli musicians with roots across the global Jewish diaspora combine their cultural memories and their tastes for new adventures.
Launched to rave reviews at the pan-Mediterranean Babel Med festival in Marseille in 2010, Yemen Blues has surged to prominence in the Israeli scene and as an international touring act, with a self-titled studio album out in 2011 and a live album due out later this year. The group performs in the MFA’s Calderwood Courtyard on Wednesday.
There’s a lot going on in Yemen Blues.
The band has two percussionists, two horns, and a bassist who also plays oud (New York-based Omer Avital, a jazz composer who is also the band’s musical director). Its fullest lineup also features a three-member string section, though the current tour omits this in favor of what Kahalani calls “our more funky, rock-style band.”
Each musician is a big name in Israel in his or her right. But no one would dispute that it’s Kahalani, a highly charismatic singer and stage presence with wild hair, flowing tunics, and an intense demeanor, who imprints the group with its distinctive flair.
His voice, powerful but nuanced, with a reedy tone and an almost astringent edge, has a naturally incantatory quality that suits a repertoire with a mystical feel. He sings in Hebrew, in multiple dialects of Arabic, in one instance in Creole, and sometimes in invented languages of his own.
But if Yemen Blues is a quintessentially hybrid act — one that Kahalani is adamant to distinguish from “other fusion projects” that explicitly try to mix and mingle specific genres — it does draw special inspiration from one source in particular.
That is the Yemenite tradition in which Kahalani was raised by his parents, immigrants from Yemen, where Jewish culture once thrived but is now close to extinct. Though Kahalani has never set foot in Yemen — and does not know if he ever will — he grew up singing and praying in Yemeni Arabic under his father’s rigid guidance.
“My father taught us to pray and sing the right way,” Kahalani says. “But today it’s harder and harder to find Yemenite Jewish culture.” That’s true even in Israel, where most Yemenite Jewish families migrated, but where their traditions are hard to keep up in the national melting pot.
As his funk, rock, and Serbian forays attest, Kahalani himself had drifted away from his roots, leaving home at 15 after his parents moved to a West Bank settlement, and making his way in the secular, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv milieu.
It was the “Desert Blues” cover project with fellow musician Alon Campino that, he says, helped him find his way back.
Taking on the task of inhabiting great Malian and other singers, delivering their lyrics in Bambara, Songhai, and other tongues, he keyed into the musical and emotional connections that link American blues with its African roots and, in turn, with Arabic and Mediterranean sounds.
“The whole thing became very clear to me,” he says. “I felt that I understood music after that in a totally different way.”
In that new state of mind, an urge came upon Kahalani to sing a song that he had sketched out, for the first time, in Yemenite Arabic. That song, “Yemen Blues,” opened the door to the new project and would end up giving the band its name.
Yemen Blues has become part of the revival of Yemenite culture in Israel, even though Yemen only accounts for one strand in the many that make up the band’s music, and Kahalani is the only actual Yemenite in the ensemble.
For Kahalani, the project has even more personal meaning. As much as his previous ventures in Serbia and elsewhere stimulated his appetite for learning and cultural curiosity, Yemen Blues is at once borderless and a return home.
“From the beginning of this project I started to connect again to my roots,” he says. “I’ve become interested again and even longing for Yemen. It’s the path I’ve created for myself, all my musical journey.”