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February 4, 2011

Music can change the world

Yemen Blues starts North American tour with Chutzpah!

Yemen Blues will kick off their first-ever North American tour in Vancouver at Chutzpah! The Lisa Nemetz International Showcase of Jewish Performing Arts. Toronto, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Boston will follow, but it all starts here.

“It’s very, very exciting to me to come to the first show of the first tour of Yemen Blues, in Vancouver,” Kahalani told the Independent in a phone interview from his home in Tel Aviv. “This is also the first show of the start of Yemen Blues’ big way of 2011. We’re going to very big stages and it’s an honor for me to come to Vancouver and I thank [Chutzpah! organizers] so much for inviting us there.”

Kahalani was in Vancouver last year with the Idan Raichel Project. About how he connected with Raichel, Kahalani said, “I met him in the streets here in Tel Aviv and I asked him to come to my show. He came to my show and he really, really liked it. After two months, he called me, he said, ‘I’m doing this acoustic show, come sing whatever you feel like.’ So, I came. Most of my singing in the acoustic show is based on my improvisations and stuff, so we had a really great connection and then we also did the electric show later.”

Kahalani co-founded Yemen Blues with composer, arranger and bassist Omer Avital, who he met through Yisrael Borochov, leader of the East-West Ensemble, who invited Kahalani to sing with him and Avital in the Debka Fantasia project, which features renditions of well-known Israel songs.

“Three years ago, I met Omer Avital and we had an amazing connection,” explained Kahalani. “I sent him two songs and he liked them very much, and we started to jam.... He saw something in me and I, of course, saw something in the arrangements. For me, he’s a genius musician and it’s one of the biggest things that [has] happened to me in my life to meet him. I had a few big things in my life ... one of them is Omer and one of them is Idan Raichel, and that’s brought me to a very, very important point in my life in this world. I have to say, thanks.”

Kahalani writes all the lyrics and music for Yemen Blues, while Avital does the arrangements. The nine-member ensemble features Kahalani (vocals, percussion, gimbri), Avital (oud, bass, vocals), Borochov (trumpet), Avi Lebovich (trombone), Hadar Noiberg (flute), Rony Iwryn (Latin percussion), Yohai Cohen (Middle East percussion), Hila Epstein (cello) and Galia Hai (viola). Kahalani praised the talent of all the musicians, concluding, “Each one of them is a star; I’m not just saying this.”

All of these musicians have played with several different groups and Israel’s musical world seems quite close-knit.

“Well, you know Israel, it’s small, very, very small, so everybody knows everybody and there are a few big productions in Israel and the good musicians are playing with the good productions, so, yeah, it’s a very small world here, but then, you know, there is the [larger] world and they are playing all over,” said Kahalani, adding, “I’m planning to go and maybe interest Bobby McFerrin in what I do and maybe even catch doing something with Sly from Sly and the Family Stone.” He pointed to Stevie Wonder and Prince as musicians that have had a big influence on his life, and he hopes one day to work with them, or at least have them attend one of his shows.

This eclectic taste has run through Kahalani’s life, as has his love of singing. His parents came from Yemen to Israel in the 1950s. Kahalani, 32, has three brothers and three sisters. He explained that his parents never spoke to them in Yemenite Arabic, but he understands some of the language from the music he was taught, and he is learning more now.

“Since I was a little kid, my father was really strict with teaching us the Yemenite singing and praying, and I was all the time listening to Yemenite music mostly and, later, other things, but it was something that was in me,” he said. “Actually, I remember myself, like five years old, a boy just going in the streets and singing gibberish. That’s something I will never forget, ever. So then, I guess, I had it in me always, even before my father was very strict with us, but this was only good for me, because half of my singing and my technique of singing [comes] from the Yemenite chants and praying.... It’s a happy thought, to think maybe I was born to sing.”

From those beginnings, Kahalani wandered from his Yemenite roots, discovering “Bob Marley, Pink Floyd. I started to explore the jazz world and blues. It was very cool music and I liked it very much and I connected to it. I was singing it in such a natural way ... because Yemenite singing is, for me, it’s kind of a blues, so there is a connection even in the techniques and mostly in the soul feeling that’s [there] when you sing the blues – when you sing Yemenite, it’s the same soul. I say all the time that a Yemenite guy and an Afro-American from Mississippi, when they sing, they sing the same thing and it’s coming from the same place, going to the same place.”

Expanding on this idea, Kahalani told the Independent, “When I started to write the music of Yemen Blues, I didn’t know it would be Yemen Blues, but the first song I wrote, it was a love song ... a metaphor for my love for the desert, the Sahara Desert. This song is called today ‘Yemen Blues.’ Then I started to do the music of Yemen Blues with Omer and the other guys that are part of Yemen Blues, and then I realized ... I’m coming from a religious family, [and] people are always looking for a path, looking for something to believe, looking for a good way of life and to be true to themselves, and I’ve been looking for that for a long time and I just realized that my religion, it’s the music.... Then I started to write the text of ‘Yemen Blues’ ... one of the singers is saying, no matter where you come from, your language is my language. Or, what worth [are] politics if we always have wars? Or, what’s [the] worth of language if no one understands each other? There are many, many, many conflicts and politics and religion and different ways of life and I think that all this can be side to side, can respect each other, but people don’t understand that they have something really, really basic in common.”

Kahalani spoke about what he called “the moment of the soul from the concert hall, when you go to a concert hall and you listen to African music or whatever – you don’t understand the lyrics, but it touches you [very] strongly and you get a moment of truth with yourself. It doesn’t matter what language it is, it doesn’t matter to which God you’re praying, it’s the melody and the music and something basic there, it’s always coming from the heart and going to another heart.”

He said that it is his hope that people will take this “moment of the soul” outside of the concert hall and make it part of their everyday life. He lamented that people often look at music as just entertainment, but, to him, music is the foundation of everything that’s going on in the world. “It’s a really basic thing,” he said. “I think music is like eating. This is what I think and I think that music can really change the world.”

Yemen Blues plays at Venue Night Club, 881 Granville St., on Thursday, Feb. 24. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30/$25 (plus HST and service charge), and attendees must be at least 19 years old. For information on all the Chutzpah! Festival shows, visit