East Meets West – Yemen Blues
Last month I heard Yemen Blues perform for 1200 young Jews as part of the at the TribeFest mega event in Las Vegas. TribeFest, JFNA’s new and improved conference for young Jewish adults, brought together an eclectic array of hip, offbeat Jewish speakers and performers in combination with more traditional Jewish establishment types for good measure. Yemen Blues was one of the most inspired choices of artists on the TribeFest playbill.
As a zealous fan of Israeli music infused with Middle Eastern and world influences, I was excited to hear Yemen Blues perform. They exceeded my expectations and fulfilled my passion for venturing into new musical territory. I was completely enthralled as the tones of Middle Eastern jazz/blues washed over me.
Start with New Orleans jazz, mix it with modern Israeli rock, and then add in native Yemini melodies and instruments and you’ve got the original Yemen Blues sound. Lead singer Ravid Kahalani, whose voice you may recognize from The Idan Raichel Project, is an Israeli Jew of Yemini descent. Kahalani sings both in Arabic and Hebrew, dancing joyously in front of an ensemble of real live musicians–a rare treat at a time in which music-minus-one performances (live acts accompanied by recorded tracks) have become the accepted norm. The Yemen Blues sound is a full-bodied swing band blend with strings and brass alternating between blues riffs and melodic minor scales.
Kahalani evokes the tribal and exotic sounds of his Yeminite heritage through his music. The history of the Temanim (Jews of Yemen) reads like a story-book fairy tale. This ancient Jewish community is said to have settled in the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula during the time of King Solomon (1451 BCE), on a quest to retrieve gold and silver for the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. The vast majority of the Jews of Yemen eventually returned to Israel in 1949-1950 as rising political tensions and pogroms forced the Yeminite Jews to leave their home of 3400 years. Israel’s Operation Magic Carpet secretly returned 50,000 Jews to their homeland. The Temanim, who had never seen airplanes before, famously referred to their salvation as taking place “on the wings of eagles”. Sadly, today Yemen’s tiny remaining community of 250 Jews are refusing Israel’s overtures to bring them back to Israel and to safety, as a new wave of political turmoil and protests could again threaten their lives.
True art can transport you to a time and place far away. Yemen Blues, with its fusion of jazz and African musical traditions, transports you to distant lands, to a culture that has all but completely disappeared from its native desert sands.
Yemen Blues is as engaging to watch as they are to hear. The stage is filled by a viola, cello (my personal fave), trombone, trumpet, alto flute, and Latin and Middle Eastern percussion. The trumpet player looks so authentic he’d probably be taken away by the TSA if caught traveling in his gig attire. Surround that with tribal percussion and a lead singer who performs in a trance-like state of ecstasy, and you have a unique blend of sounds that should bring Yemen Blues into the hands of a major record label very soon. If you like world music with a twist of old-fashioned American ingenuity, check this group out at www.yemenblues.com.
Read more about Yemen Blues at WorldMusicCentral.org.