NEW YORK — Even in a place like New York City, Ravid Kahalani’s distinct look doesn’t go unnoticed. Strutting down the streets of the Big Apple, the Israeli-born Yemen Blues project founder wears a gold blouse, pointed leather shoes, an African-inspired golden ring with zebra stripes. And then there’s his signature black man bun.
Equipped with a gimbri (a three-string bass originating in Morocco), deep vocals, and magnetic energy, New York’s newest musical missionary is determined to spread his message to a diverse Manhattan audience. Yemen Blues will perform on August 7 at the coveted Brooklyn Bowl concert venue.
Although founded in Israel, the group is expected to attract an eclectic audience of Middle Easterners and locals.
“My music has been embraced by Muslim youth. Fans from Yemen write to me saying that Yemen Blues has brought them pride. They feel as if the music represents them,” Kahalani says.
After 10 years of world touring, five of which Kahalani spent on stage alongside Israeli singer-songwriter Idan Raichel, Kahalani has received numerous invitations from the Arab world, he says. But the closest he’s come is performing in Turkey.
“I want our next chapter to include many more Muslim countries and one day, Yemen,” he says.
Kahalani is now one step closer: Ahmed Alshaiba, a Muslim Yemenite oud player from Sana’a, Yemen, will be the Brooklyn Bowl concert’s opening act.
Alshaiba and Kahalnai’s musical union was a match made in social media. In 2011 at the start of the Yemeni Revolution, Alshaiba, who was still in Sana’a at the time, typed the word “Yemen” into the YouTube search bar out of curiosity. Remarkably, the Israeli band Yemen Blues popped up.
Intrigued, Alshaiba began to research the band and was excited to discover that they shared his same roots. Alshaiba contacted Kahalani on Facebook, he told The Times of Israel, to express “support and love for the message he is delivering to the people.” After they both ended up in New York City, they began a joint musical journey.
“A lot of the audience doesn’t understand Arabic, but can feel the story. The songs and lyrics talk about peace, love, politics, and open our eyes to what’s going on in the world. Ravid is deeply connected to his roots, which is why a lot of people from different cultures connect to his music,” Alshaiba says.
Alshaiba and Kahalani are planning to host many joint concerts together in the future and will bring back melodies from their shared musical tradition.
“I am very excited to be working with Yemen Blues. They bring an incredible energy with them that is relatable and contagious,” says Alshaiba.
The Yemen Blues is born
When Yemen Blues first came out in 2010, the band consisted of nine members who produced a musical language of their own through mixing sounds that originate in different parts of the world. Greatly influenced by jazz, blues, Latino, and African beats, Yemen Blues meets at the crossroads of traditional Yemenite melodies and contemporary funk.
The project has been described as both timeless and modern, and is constantly evolving. Every member of the group brings forward the sound of their own cultural imprint.
It took Kahalani 20 years to realize his calling as a performer of world music. Before discovering this distinct combination of instruments and rhythms that has come to define Yemen Blues, Kahalani explored various musical and non-musical spheres.
His past undertakings include opera singing, a short-lived stint with Hare Krishna, seven years as a professional cook, training as a dancer, and even performing in a national theater as a lead actor.
Asked why he recently chose to move away from his homeland, Kahalani explains, with no evidence of false modesty, that, “Israel was unable to fully recognize what I have to offer. A very small number of people understand what I’m presenting.”
From a professional perspective, leaving Israel in pursuit of a larger market means an opportunity to engage with a greater audience and increase revenue.
Kahalani isn’t the only Sabra to look west. According to figures published by the US Department of Homeland Security, the number of Israelis emigrating to the US has grown substantially in the past decade. From 2006 to 2016, 87,000 Israelis became US citizens or permanent residents — over 20,000 more than emigrated between 1995 and 2005.
While he may not be the lone Israeli Jewish musician to hit New York’s pavement, he’s likely one of the only Sabras to quickly partner up with a Yemenite Muslim.
Kahalani’s path to stage stardom is as equally unexpected as his new musical partner. The Yemen Blues singer grew up in a religious home in the settlement of Elon Moreh, and was exposed to Hasidic and Yemenite tunes from a very young age.
Kahalani recalls going regularly to the local synagogue with his father, and although young, this childhood ritual had a profound impact on him.
“It was a Yemenite synagogue, a very simple building, and I remember the powerful feelings I had as a child when singing the verses of the prayers. It was always about singing and accurately pronouncing verses in a perfect Arabic accent.”
In his teenage years, Kahalani moved away from religion. He dropped out of school at 15 and left home in search of his own direction. He describes the next five years as a time of deep exploration. Hard drugs became a way of life, and it wasn’t until around the age of 20 that he realized he was headed for disaster.
“I woke up one day with the understanding that I was going to end up a druggie at the central bus station or dead if I don’t stop now,” Kahalani says. It was the wake up call needed to get his life back on track.
With a renewed lease on life, Kahalani moved to Tel Aviv and worked as a cook, believing he would one day become a professional chef.
Between his cooking, dance classes, and theater performances, music started gaining priority in his life and soon became a constant. He began to discover artists like Stevie Wonder and Prince. By 25, he experienced his musical awakening and knew that becoming a musician was his destiny.
“A lot of people take music as entertainment or something that will make them feel a certain way. But music is actually a reminder of how to behave in front of each other. Music shows us how to be a human being in this world,” Kahalani says.
Meanwhile, just ‘next door’
Relatively close by, Alshaiba was born to a Muslim family in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. The youngest of 8 siblings, Alshaiba was raised listening to traditional Yemeni music but never considered music as a profession.
“No one in either my immediate or extended family is a musician,” he says.
At the age of 14, an encounter with a dusty oud lying around the house sparked an interest that “would soon became an obsession,” he says. Alshaiba started teaching himself to play by ear.
“I would play for hours until my fingers hurt,” he says. “I would listen to a song and could play it immediately after. I guess it’s something that comes after a lot of practice.”
Self taught, Alshaiba experienced a lot of pushback from his own family who didn’t approve of his musical career. Alshaiba had his oud taken away by his parents after neglecting his studies.
Determined to continue practicing, he would skip class and spend his days at a local music store that soon became his musical second home.
“I would help clean and tune every new shipment of oud instruments and in return the owner let me stay in the store and practice. That was the agreement,” Alshaiba says.
At 22, Alshaiba moved to the US, where several members of his family had already emigrated. He was forced to join and help support the family business as a restaurant manager for several years. But he continued to build his musical career in his spare time, mainly online.
“I recorded a cover to Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ and was shocked at the response,” Alshaiba says.
Alshaiba’s covers posted on YouTube have gained millions of views over the past few years, and when singer-songwriter Sia reposted his acoustic version of her song “The Greatest” on Instagram, Alshaiba saw it as a sign.
“I was having doubts about succeeding as a musician in the US, but this gesture gave me the validation I needed,” he says.
In 2017 he left his day job in order to pursue his musical dream to produce his first original album.
Meeting of the minds
Yemen and Israel do not officially have diplomatic relations — a situation that does not appear on the brink of change. However, Yemen is greatly influenced by Jewish culture, something that is extremely evident through music, according to Alshaiba.
“The culture in Yemen was inclusive. We were all Yemeni. Most of Yemen would sing and listen to Jewish songs. [Israeli super star] Ofra Haza was the Yemeni idol,” says Alshaiba.
The Yemen that Alshaiba nostalgically remembers is one where Muslims and Jews lived together in harmony as they did for centuries. Today there are barely any Jews left in the country.
When performing with Yemen Blues for the first time, Alshaiba wasn’t sure what kind of reaction he would receive.
“I expected some backlash from the Muslim community, but I actually didn’t get any,” he says.
The effect was quite the opposite following their first concert: Kahalani gained popularity in Yemen and his Muslim audience grew substantially.
The two musicians share a unique bond that is based on their shared world-view and message of peace.
“We are two spirits dancing together,” says Alshaiba. “We have our separate careers, but plan to continue performing together and spreading our ideals. Love and peace, what more do you need?”
Yemen Blues and Ahmed Alshaiba will perform at The Brooklyn Bowl at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, August 7.