He is the global village. And so is his band. Ravid Kahalani is a Yemeni Jew from Israel who embraces American blues and jazz, West African songs, Serbian church music, classical opera from greater Europe, Arabic singing, Hebrew odes, Latin music and lots of other traditions -- all of which influence the songs that his band, Yemen Blues, perform. It's a cliché to say, "There's nothing like it," but cliché it is: There's nothing quite like Yemen Blues, which opens the Jewish Music Festival this Saturday, March 5, 2011 in Berkeley.
"There are lots of influences and cultures inside our music, but we combine everything naturally, in an organic way, so we have a unique sound," Kahalani says in a phone interview from Toronto, where Yemen Blues performed as part of its extensive North American tour.
Still, Kahalani quickly adds, "It all started with Yemeni roots -- my Yemeni roots. That's why the band is called Yemen Blues. It all started from there. The blues of the Yemenis."
In fact, Kahalani sings mostly in Yemeni Arabic, though the word "sing" doesn't adequately convey what he does. At times, Kahalani wails and shrieks. He hits registers that are usually reserved for extreme yodelers. He'll also prance around on stage, lost in the music the way many of the group's fans get. It's a kind of intoxication where all the band members -- and there are eight others -- pile on with their various instruments (oud, cello, flute, viola, trumpet, trombone, drums). It's infectious, even for those who don't understand what Kahalani is singing about. Often, he says, the songs are about bridging people's apparent differences, whether they stem from nationality, religion, or other barometers.
"In one of the songs I sing that it doesn't matter where you come from, your language is my language," says Kahalani, speaking in English. "In another song, I sing, 'What's worth a language if we don't understand each other.' "
Kahalani's father, whose culture was passed on to his son, immigrated to Israel 60 years ago from Yemen. Kahalani, who also sings in English, Creole, Hebrew and Moroccan Arabic, didn't learn Yemeni Arabic while growing up, but he did sing Jewish religious chants in Yemeni Arabic, and says, "I see myself as an Arab Jew." His musical approach could be interpreted as a plea for Jews and Arabs to get along in the Holy Land, but Kahalani says that in his personal life and his professional one, he avoids politics.
"In every level of my life, I never was a person who talks about politics," says Kahalani, 33. "My goal is to really, really make clear to people that before religion and before politics and before the things that take up so much space in everyone's life, before all that, we had the proper soul. . . . Music is an amazing tool to turn things upside down. Music can unite people. It's not just entertainment."
Now in its 26th year, the Jewish Music Festival is an ideal place for Kahalani's performances. This year's festival, which runs until March 13, also features the Ger Mandolin Ensemble, 2011, which plays music inspired by Poland's Jewish community in the 1930s; Veretski Pass, a trio that will perform klezmer inspired by jazz, classical and other music; Noah Bendix-Balgley, a violinist who is interpreting traditional Jewish folk music; trumpeter David Buchbinder, a klezmer mainstay, performing with Cuban pianist Hilario Duran and a lineup of jazz and world-music players; and Erik Bendix, a prominent Jewish dance instructor who will help lead a klezmer dance event with many of the festival's headliners.
Says festival director Ellie Shapiro: "This is the strongest overall festival we may have had."
Yemen Blues performs Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 8pm and 10:30pm at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage. For tickets and information visit jewishmusicfestival.org.