Yemen Blues' Well-Meaning Reach Exceeds Its Grasp


Some men have a mission.
Ravid Kahalani, the co-founder of, and frontman for, Yemen Blues, a Sephardic musical group that will be playing at the Cedar Cultural Center, in Minneapolis, this Thursday, Jan. 5, has a message to deliver.
And no surprise here: his message is in his music.
“These days, with our roots, our music culture has to hit the new world, so [people] can see the influence that people have on each other, from a very long time ago,” said Ravid Kahalani, during a recent phone conversation we had.
To a certain extent, the band’s lead vocalist, percussionist, and gimbri player, believes that music is like a natural glue that connects us, while still allowing us to take away our own personal experiences; experiences that hit us honestly and, if you’ll pardon the vernacular, right where it counts: the soul. Kahalani explained:

“So, you can see that we are all influenced by each other and our cultures are all influenced by each other. For me, the word “blues” is something really global; it’s a really deep word that shows that more than 60% of the music in this world is coming from Africa. I mean, as an African would sing his culture’s music, would pray or chant, or a blues singer from Mississippi—for me, it’s all the same kind of soul singing.
It’s coming from the same place and going to the same place, and I hope that the people will understand that before they are going to religion or politics or anything … or creating something more or following something more, they should know the basic human being understanding and if everyone will understand it, they will follow by that, many, many things will be easy to find.
You know, when you go to a show and you listen to music that you don’t even understand the lyrics, and you haven’t heard the melody before, but it’s just touching you, like, really straight, and it’s becoming something very natural; and people from all over the world to see us, coming to see this music, and all over the world … and they feel it, and it feels very strong, they become very natural. They connect with this moment of the soul, which is a very basic place to be. So, I hope—I really hope!—that people will really let their soul, as basic human beings, understand, to be their source or basis for their purpose here—this is, more or less, what I want. I want people to have a very true experience, with happiness and growth.”

So, the guy isn’t short on words. That’s okay, though, because, while his English tends to be on the choppy side, his passion is infectious. You don’t feel like you’re at your standard-issue, get-in and get-the-hell-out celeb interview. In fact, at two different points in our phone interview—yes, I had to make a call to Israel, which, I’ll admit, is a first for me; and might I add, thank God for calling cards!—we were disconnected, and the man actually started to answer the questions again, starting from the top—which goes to show that this fellow isn’t bullshitting anyone. He means what he says, when he says it. For that alone, respect must be paid.
When asked what he considers his musical center to be (i.e. the brain—analysis and critical thinking; the heart—emotions; the stomach—confidence and leadership; or, well, the crotch—sex, drugs, and rock & roll, baby, also known as the id), it was no surprise that he was a man of many complex answers.

“Well, I hope to get a balance between the mind and heart,” said Kahalani. “I think it’s the best center I can have. I mean, I go a lot by feelings. I write music from a very, very basic place, and a not-very-educated place, a very simple place, and I’m trying to bring a very sophisticated sound in it, and trying to bring all kind of stuff that we are influenced by: modern music … or whatever I’m working on. I’m lucky to work with the best musicians I could ever dream of playing or arranging my music. So, I’m trying to have this balance of mine, that’s between my heart and stomach. So, yeah, I write a lot, from moments; moments of feelings, moments of thinking, and I think every song that I wrote comes from a different place in me. So, it’s all about moments of all different kinds of centers, but I really want some kind a center that’s very calm but very passionate, at the same time; something between feelings, heart, and mind.”

Did ya get all that? Well, maybe you did or maybe you didn’t. It’s always the best musicians that are misinterpreted, misunderstood or, well, let’s face it: cuckoo for cocoa puffs. Yet, somehow, their passion and their soulfulness transcend their quirks.
After all, if you look at Kahalani’s influences,  it really helps to understand what he’s aiming for—and hitting. While his musical influences range from African hymns to Miles Davis, his favorite musicians are none other than Stevie Wonder and Minnesota’s very own pride and joy: Prince.

“I was very influenced by Stevie Wonder,” said Kahalani. “I’m very, very connected to the performance, the performance of singing. The singing of Stevie Wonder has the most soul. For me, Prince is the god of performance, and a very genius musician. Then I started to listen to West African music and North African music, which brought me back home; through all of this, it’s like a circle. So, I started listening to this and I came back to my own roots—my Yemenite roots. I always understood the whole circle, because Africa is the basis of everything I’ve said.”

If anyone listened to African music—that is, music that has derived from Africa proper—the instruments used are very unique, giving it a very distinctive sound. As a music-lover, I couldn’t help but geek out, asking him to give a thorough listing of the instruments played in his nine-member band.
“We don’t really have a harmonic instrument besides our group,” said Kahalani. “We use the trombone, the trumpet, the flute, two percussionists, the cello, the viola. And me? I play the gimbri … we don’t use any guitar.”
Now that Kahalani, and his band, are considered one of the hottest Jewish musical acts in the world, we discussed what his goals are.

“We’re going to work on the next album very soon, with various collaborations with great musicians, from all over the world,” he said. “It’s going to be a great album. We already have all of the songs [completed] … “We’re going to perform with the new album, next summer. After that, I want to get as many shows and big stages as I can, and spread the word and to keep working on the positive message and maybe change a bit of the energy of people, in certain places of the world; and to go on, hopefully, I can do as many things as I can to teach people and kids how humanity is important through music. I want to work a lot with kids … and make as much music as I can. I see myself as a tool, in this world, that can provide something that might be good. That’s what I want to do. It’s the right thing to do.”



Sometimes, my job really sucks.
The band’s current, self-titled album is definitely what I would call a mixed bag.
Sure, it certainly has its moments of power, beauty, and groovy middle-eastern tones, but the whole doesn’t equal the sum of its parts.
I’m not going to go through every track, like I normally do—though, I’d be doing readers a disservice by not urging them to download track six, “Trape La Verite,” the album’s apex…no doubt about it—because, after a while, all of the songs had a sort of sameness that grew disheartening and, sometimes, downright irritating and frustratingly one-note. The songs themselves are either written in Hebrew or Arabic and, while listening to foreign/world music can be an enlightening experience, a little bit of the latter language goes a long way.
What makes it all the more frustrating is that I was provided with the English translations of the songs and, admittedly, the lyrics are, indeed, stunning, poignant, and beautiful. They pack a serious emotional wallop.
It’s just a shame that the foreign iteration of them, as sung by Kahalani and his band, comes across as harsh and intrusive, especially in light of the fact that the instrumentals are so lush and unique-sounding.
So, yeah, I get the message of peace, love, and understanding that the band, and its frontman, wants to convey.
I just wish Kahalani would shut up and let the music do the talking for him.
Like I said, this is the sucky part of the job: Giving well-meaning artists a black eye.
Trust me: it probably hurts me more than it hurts them.