Why Yemen Blues Will Make You Happy
Ravid Kahalani is not normal.
That much was abundantly clear a few songs into the recent performances by Kahalani’s band — Yemen Blues — at Joe’s Pub, on Lafayette Street in Manhattan.
During his performance, the front man seamlessly switched from low notes to impossibly high notes. Some songs sounded angelic, while others made you swear that he was having an exorcism. For much of the concert, Kahalani swung his arms and was a whirling dervish of energy. And then, at one moment, he sat on the floor of the stage — almost totally still — and cried.
Kahalani played the gimbri, a three-stringed plucked lute made of wood and camel skin, with the confidence of Prince playing his guitar. He wore a black tunic with what appeared to be palazzo pants, and at times his dreadlocks became untied and went wild.
Kahalani also provided a palpable sincerity. He was joined by whiplash-inducing Brian Marsella on keyboards; the hypnotic strumming of Shanir Blumenkranz on the oud and bass; the quick sticks of drummer Ofri Nehemya; and the talented trumpet player Edo Gur. Omer Avital, who founded the group with Kahalani before pursuing other projects, also came onstage for some songs, playing the oud or bass.
One of the best moments of the show was the incredibly romantic French song “Ton Sourer,” off the album “Insaniya.” The lyrics were sung with delicate precision, and the last portion of the song included a powerful chant.
“It’s a super-sad song that I wrote about this girl that I was with for one month,” Kahalani told me in a brief interview after the performance. “When she left, it crashed me completely. She was great. She is still great. I guess we had to go through something together, and [that] made this creation.”
“Ma’ala Asalam” offered an infectious horn section that sounded like the band was introducing a royal subject. Meanwhile, the best moment of the night was the explosive “Jat Mahibathi,” in which Kahalani got the audience to join in. There’s a great YouTube video of him playing this song in Jerusalem’s Old City, that has garnered more than 1.3 million views. The show fittingly opened with “Mountains Will Rise,” which uses words from the hallel prayer.
Kahalani’s ability to emote made it immaterial that much of the audience didn’t understand his song lyrics — which were often in Hebrew, Arabic and French. Kahalani is from Israel, and his father is from Yemen. The singer got applause when he announced that he had moved to New York.
I saw three of his four shows at Joe’s Pub, and while they were mostly the same, I didn’t get bored for a second. The ferocity of his attack, both in terms of showmanship and vocals, was far superior to a performance of his that I saw one year ago.
“I’ve had a few big changes that made me explode,” Kahalani said, without specifically mentioning what those changes were.
Within Yemen Blues’ music, there are influences — from blues, reggae, jazz, and sounds of North Africa and the Middle East. The group also offered up its first English song with a chorus: “It’s All Love.”
Yemen Blues is one of the best live acts you will see, largely due to the front man’s lust for life.
“The place that I feel most comfortable in the world is the stage,” Kahalani said. “I’m having a lot of fun. When everybody looks at you on stage, it’s a very powerful moment. When you know how to feel it, accept it and give it back in a way that is meaningful to what you present, it’s one of the strongest feelings in the world.”