Amidst the horrific roll call of ongoing international disasters, Yemen has attained an awful distinction. Venezuela is a failing state, and millions of people are still displaced from Syria’s civil/proxy war. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have yet to return to their homes in Burma, and southern Africa is in the midst of a devastating drought. But UNICEF describes Yemen as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” with some 80 percent of its 28 million people “in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children.”
Rarely has a band’s name seemed more apropos than Yemen Blues, the groove-centric Middle Eastern ensemble founded by Yemeni Israeli vocalist, composer, and percussionist Ravid Kahalani. The latest incarnation of the singular New York band performs Thursday and Friday at Freight & Salvage focusing on an extended work setting several Psalms to a score that draws on traditional Yemeni melodies and other far-flung sources. Arranged by Kahalani and the great Israeli jazz bassist Omer Avital, a player of Moroccan and Yemeni descent who helped pave the way for a remarkable wave of Israeli jazz musicians in New York City in the 1990s, the text is also known as the Hebrew prayer Hallel, which is recited on holy days as an act of praise and thanksgiving.
On the Hallel tour, Yemen Blues is offering praise for Doctors Without Borders, who are doing sanctified work in Yemen. The band is actively promoting the organization’s efforts caring for the wounded amidst the regular targeting of medical facilities by US-supplied Saudi forces. “I was very happy to connect with Doctors Without Borders,” Kahalani said, while driving to Washington D.C. for a performance with Yemeni oud player Ahmed Al-Shaiba. “We’re all trying to support that, to give some hope to the people there who want peace and believe that things can change.”
Launched by Kahalani and Avital in 2010, Yemen Blues has evolved into a ferociously rhythmic ensemble powered by an array of grooves that stretch from North Africa and Brooklyn to the Arabian Peninsula, Salvador da Bahia and Nigeria. For the Hallel tour, the group features several early members of the project, such as Uruguayan-born Israeli percussionist Rony Iwryn and Brooklyn-reared bassist and oud player Shanir Blumenkranz, who’s toured and recorded with Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits, Pharaoh’s Daughter, and John Zorn. On strings there are Iranian-born Navid Kandelousi on violin and kamancheh and Israeli cellist Yoed Nir. The horn section features three Israeli players, flutist and saxophonist Salit Lahav, jazz trombonist Yonatan Voltzok, and trumpeter Asa Kook. Holding down the rhythm section is the prodigious Nikki Glaspie, best known as a member of Beyoncé’s all-female backup band.
Whatever instrument a member of Yemen Blues plays, “a lot of the music focuses on groove,” Kahalani said. “Sometimes the string players play groove for half of the song, a powerful and beautiful thing. A lot of the time I see the music of Yemen Blues as new cultural music. It’s less about writing songs and more like creating a feeling of trance, of tapping into sacred traditions. But it’s not one or two things. It can be also more of a song, a ballad, a chant, or a trance rhythm. Whatever works in the moment as we create the music.”
Kahalani was born in Israel, but his parents were from Yemen and he grew up in a deeply devout household. The story of the Jews of Yemen, a community present on the southern Arabian Peninsula at least 800 years before the arrival of Islam, embodies many of the contradictions of Israel’s founding. While Yemeni Jews sometimes faced persecution, they were entirely at home and inextricably woven into the region’s culture. Inextricable until the late 19th century, when an early wave of Yemeni Jews settled in Jerusalem, moving within the Ottoman Empire. But it was the founding of Israeli in 1948 and the resulting anti-Jewish riots that swept Aden that prompted virtually the entire Yemeni Jewish population to flee to the newly established state, which was founded by Ashkenazi Jews from Europe who were as inspired by socialism as Torah.
“It was a big deal for them to come to Israel,” Kahalani said of his parents. “They thought this was the biggest goal they could achieve, to be in the holy land and speak the holy language. They stopped speaking Arabic. But Israel was created by people from Europe and they wanted to make a Western environment. The dream of the Yemeni Jews crashed a little bit because it was not really a religious approach. In Yemen they were really part of the country. They had a lot of problems in their history, but they had many good times, and an understanding of the society.”
Yemen Blues made its Bay Area debut at the Freight in 2011, and the group performed most recently last year at the UC Theatre on an Israeli triple bill with Dudu Tassa and The Kuwaitis and the Ethio-Israeli rocker Gili Yalo. In many ways, the Yemen Blues band that plays the Freight “is very similar to the first instrumentation, to the original band in 2011,” Kahalani said. “We present the complete Hallel prayer with new compositions that go between Afro-funk and some Arabic sounds and even one very Western song. It’s not the regular repertoire. The whole text of the show is this prayer in Hebrew, but pronounced in the Yemeni way, which sounds like Arabic.”