Ravid Kahalani grew up singing traditional Jewish Yemenite songs in synagogues. The experience led him to create Yemen Blues, scheduled to perform Sunday, March 11, at the Breman Museum as part of the Molly Blank Jewish Concert Series and the ninth annual Atlanta Jewish Music Festival.
Yemen Blues is one of two Yemenite bands at AJMF9, joining Bint El Funk. Both are following in the footsteps of three-sister Israeli Yemenite group A-WA, which performed at AJMF7, providing a fusion of Yemenite funk and electronic dance at Terminal West.
Before Kahalani formed Yemen Blues, he collaborated with musicians Omer Avital and Debka Fantasia. They held frequent jam sessions in New York and Tel Aviv until Rony Iwryn, Itamar Doari and Itamar Borchov joined the band and brought their own cultural experiences. Musicians Galia Hai, Hadar Noiberg (who also played AJMF7), Avi Lebovich and Hilla Epstein later joined the group.
After recording a few songs, Kahalani sent a copy of the band’s music to Israeli journalist Dubi Lentz, who distributed it at the Babel Med Music Festival in Marseille. That decision led to the band’s first show and inevitable success.
“We became popular overnight and have booked hundreds of shows since then,” Kahalani said.
He described his music as new age and cultural but said it’s hard to place it in a specific genre. “There are lots of cultures infused within the music, but I think the way we worked on it was very organic and natural,” he said. “When you listen to Yemen Blues, you hear layers of different cultures which actually influenced each other if you go back in time.”
Traditional Jewish Yemenite melodies, blues and jazz are some of many genres that influence Yemen Blues, said Kahalani, who grew up listening to Pink Floyd, Bob Marley and a lot of African-American music, which led him to rediscover Africa.
“African music is the source of almost everything that we have today,” he said.
In addition to Yemenite and African influences, Kahalani said the band members influence the group by incorporating their own cultures.
“I like countless types of music, and my goal is to just keep evolving and connecting the dots between different cultures which influenced each other,” he said.
In his early 20s, Kahalani listened to artists such as Miles Davis, Blind Willie Johnson and Big Momma Thornton. “The singers really inspired me and influenced me as a performer.”
Most of Yemen Blues’ songs are in Hebrew or Arabic. Kahalani said he writes the lyrics based on how he feels about the melody.
Born and raised in Israel, Kahalani seldom spoke Arabic with his father, but he sought to preserve the family’s traditional language.
“Yemenite prayers are very similar to Arabic conversations,” he said. “I feel that language can be used as a tool to express certain things better.”
Kahalani doesn’t recall visiting Atlanta before but has always been fascinated by the South’s gospel music. He is working on a gospel project after reuniting with Omer Avital and hopes to learn more during his visit.
“I know Atlanta possesses a strong gospel community, which is very much connected to my culture,” he said.
Yemen Blues will be touring the United States in the weeks ahead, including Florida, New York and Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest. Kahalani said, “I’m coming with some amazing musicians and believe people should leave their expectations behind and come ready to dance and experience some good music.”
Similar to Yemen Blues, Bint El Funk, which means “daughter of funk,” infuses traditional Jewish Yemenite music with funk. The group is scheduled to perform at AJMF9 on Sunday, March 18, at Orpheus Brewery.
After vocalist Shiran Karni asked some classmates whether they would like to create some Yemenite funk with her, she received a resounding yes and inevitably created her own band.
African genres, soul and funk, and Turkish and Arabic melodies influence Bint El Funk’s music today.
“Yemenite funk is a mix of everything,” Karni said. “You can infuse it with jazz or some African beats.”
Drummer Regev Baruch added, “Some of the songs are traditional Jewish Yemenite melodies, and some have been rearranged into funk, but we try to keep the same sound.”
Like Yemen Blues, Karni said Bint El Funk’s members influence the group’s music.
“Everyone has a different story,” Baruch said. “Some people work together during rehearsal. Some compose the rhythm and the structure. But it eventually comes together.”
When she is not performing, Karni listens to Yemenite, Turkish, funk and Middle Eastern music.
“There is a lot of traditional Jewish Yemenite music in Israel, which traces its roots back to Yemenite women’s chants,” she said.
Baruch said he knew Kahalani when he was young and is happy that Yemen Blues is also performing at the Atlanta festival. Bint El Funk is eager to learn more about Atlanta because this will be the group’s first visit. The group also is appearing in New York and Boston.
“We are excited to come to Atlanta and can’t wait to meet everyone,” Karni said.