When COVID-19 first spread in early 2020, Ravid Kahalani was getting ready for a series of tour dates in Europe with his fusion Israeli jazz and funk group, Yemen Blues.
But as countries closed their borders and fear skyrocketed, members of the band didn’t join him. Yemen Blues’ drummer flew to Paris from New York — and in an hour was on another flight back to the U.S. Only bassist and oud player Shanir Blumenkranz showed up.
“Shanir said, ‘let’s go do the shows until they tell us to go home.’ So we did like three shows out of the tour…it was insane,” Kahalani said. “Every time someone coughed, everybody was freaking out. And it really felt like the end of the world.”
And so the Yemen Blues Duo was born, with Blumenkranz stacking audio effects on his instruments and Kahalani singing and playing drums as they weaved improvisation and intimate moments into Yemen Blues’ bombastic mix of Hebrew, Arabic, French, and Creole songs.
Kahalani said those three shows in Europe were the best he’s ever had, as the duo gave their all to bring joy to audience members in a difficult time.
Performing now has a different kind of urgency for Kahalani, who struggled, like many musicians, during lockdowns in 2020. His income was frozen and his passion had no outlet.
“Years of tours…kind of stopped. And it was horrible. I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he said.
And the uncertainty that defined 2020 still hasn’t gone away. New COVID variants have created a wildly changing landscape of safety rules in different countries and states that are difficult to navigate. Performing is a lot more stressful than it used to be.
“It feels like you need to work harder and nothing is really clear. Rules are changing all the time…So It’s not as much fun as it was before,” Kahalani said. “But what is fun is that we do get to perform and to make music and to meet and to travel.”
Yemen Blues’ have performed several times in the Twin Cities – including, early on in the group’s history, at a St. Paul JCC-sponsored concert at the Cedar Cultural Center in 2012.
So what should first-time listeners of Yemen Blues expect as both the audience and performers aim for escapism from current events?
“Jewish prayers, to original lyrics of Arabic singing, to a heavy, rocky, funky, and groovy sound,” Kahalani said. “Especially in the duo, a performance of all kinds of intense vocals.”
Kahalani comes from a Jewish-Yemeni family, and Blumenkranz from an Egyptian-Polish Jewish background, giving them a broad canvas of musical traditions to blend and explore.
“The show will be full of love and great music, and I hope [people] can show up,” Kahalani said.