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YEMEN BLUES AT RADY JCC'S TARBUT 2 YEARS AGO WAS FANTASTIC-THAT'S WHY TARBUT IS BRINGING THEM BACK

by Jane Enkin October 30, 2014

 


[Editor's note: Yemen Blues will be returning to Winnipeg for this year's Rady JCC Tarbut Festival on Sat Nov 22, 2014. Below is Jane Enkin's review of their show when they were last here in 2012.
For tickets for this year's show click here: http://radyjcc.com/template.cfm?tID=256  ]



by Jane Enkin, December 19, 2012

 

Enormous thanks are due to those who bring us the concerts of theTarbut Festival – Rady JCC Centre staff, music producer Karla Berbrayer, volunteers, and generous donors, now anchored by the new Babs Asper Centre for Cultural Arts at the Rady Jewish Community Centre. Tarbut brings us music we might otherwise never experience in Winnipeg.

This year, I was thrilled to hear Yemen Blues, an exciting, multicultural fusion band.

From the Yemen Blues myspace page: YEMEN BLUES was founded in 2010 by Ravid Kahalani, a rising star in Israel who grew up in a traditional Yemenite family. He learned the language and the traditional chants of his origin. Kahalani extended his influences in the areas of blues and West African soul, from the Sahara desert through classical Opera singing to Afro-American blues. He joined forces with Omer Avital, a well known bass player and composer from New York, and together they created YEMEN BLUES, a supergroup of top musicians from New York, Israel and Uruguay... YEMEN BLUES is “a language you will understand no matter where you come from”, singer Ravid Kahalani says. “It is my origin and my influences all together as well as meeting with this group of amazing musicians.” ... YEMEN BLUES concerts are an ultimate celebration of African grooves, a pure happiness & deep emotion Yemenite singing, a new music experience and innovative sound – with a strong message.

As fascinating as it is to understand something of the band's origins, the experience of hearing Yemen Blues is visceral, immediate and exciting. All the musicians have an intense, engaging visual presence, enjoying their interactions with the audience and looking totally delighted with one another: the bass player, doubling on oud, two percussionists with dozens of instruments, two jazz horn players, and Kahalani singing and sometimes playing a four stringed bass lute, the Saharan guimbri.

This is a band with a big sound, and enough fun to watch that it could easily command a huge stage. We were lucky to see them in the more intimate setting of the Berney Theatre – my companion and I especially fortunate, sitting in the front row.

There was one long, thrilling percussion duet, with no other musicians on stage, which drew cheers. The rest of the time, Kahalani kept to centre stage, with great support from the band as well as lavish instrumental solos.


Kahalani is slender, delicate and a fountain of energy. At one point, he reminded me of a young Bruce Springsteen, with his rough, raw passion, and the illusion he created that he was completely overwhelmed by his feelings, about to break down from the emotion. Just then, he smiled and started to dance, and I saw that he moved with a delicacy and exuberance that no Western rock star could pull off. I wished I could dance with him – and more and more audience members did get up and dance in the aisles, until a time near the end of the show when the band encouraged us all to get up and dance at our seats to the wonderful rhythms.

Language doesn't matter much in music like this, but I did wonder about the languages Kahalani was singing in, and the content of the songs. It turns out he was singing both Arabic and Hebrew, with some Aramaic words as well. He didn't introduce or translate much, but he did talk us through one song, after telling about a Friday night he spent visiting a Muslim family in their home, making Kiddush and enjoying the common elements of Muslim and Jewish prayer. “We are all searching for a better life,” went the song. “Jewish, Muslim, Hindi, Buddhist...All the melodies come from the heart.” 

Kahalani's vocal range, not just in pitch but in timbre, is vast. He might start a song accompanied only by the oud, singing smooth, ornamented traditional sounds, and then switch to rough growls, and then to sweet, thin falsetto. His emotional range was also terrific– he stands still and gets lost in the pain of a lyric, then reaches his hand out to the audience, then suddenly signals the band to kick into a fast groove and grins, dancing happily.

I was fortunate to talk with Isaac Gutwilik after the concert, a Winnipeg percussionist trained in traditional Yemenite music. A typical Yemenite song, like some of the outstanding pieces in the Yemen Blues concert, starts with an oud solo, followed by gentle singing with oud accompaniment. Then a percussion groove comes in, and the music can reach a really energetic level. The high energy dancing that Kahalani kept up through the whole show – by the end he was leaping into the air, pulling his knees to chest height – is also traditional. “It gets really crazy.” Traditional Yemeni lyrics may be drawn from the Diwan, a body of sacred poetry from the Middle Age. They may, alternatively, be improvised, starting with Hebrew, but if the rhyme is better, an Arabic word may be thrown in, especially slang words, and if it helps the meter, Aramaic words may slide in too.

Kahalani builds on all these Yemeni traditions, adds Israeli, Morroccan, African and other influences, then fills the stage with the very individual work of the two jazz horn players, the bass and oud player, and the two dynamos on percussion. The result is an outstanding, moving musical experience, one that I'd love to have again soon.

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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