Blind Yemen Blues

Yemen Blues in Concert

Royce Hall, UCLA

Thursday, November 15, 2012

By Ross Altman

Ravid_KahalaniYemen Blues, an Israeli/American band from Yemen, where Jews number fewer than 500 people, a mere remnant of a once thriving population now mostly made up of Sunni Muslims, succeeded in transforming UCLA’s sedate Royce Hall into a rousing folk dance nightclub on the order of a super-size Café Dannsa last night, an amazing accomplishment since most people go to Royce Hall to sit comfortably and listen.

Not Yemen Blues’ audience; with the encouragement of the band audience members consistently jumped up out of their seats and danced down to the front of the stage.

Call it Israeli Woodstock; this nine-piece band had the joint jumpin’ by their second song, and never let up.

For those still sitting down, however, one might also call it torture chamber rock; you could literally feel your heart thumping in your chest from the dynamite percussion section in the middle. It was so loud that by the time I left, about half way through the show, my editor was squeezing her eardrums to protect them. Two numbers before, when the lead singer motioned the rest of the band off stage to feature just the percussionists, I could hear her exclaim “uh oh!” in trepidation.

Looking at the classic instruments on stage one would have no inkling of the powerful sound at their disposal: Katie Kresek on viola, cellist Dave Eggar, Shanir Blumenkranz on oud and electric bass—the string section— Itai Kriss on flute, Itamar Borochov on trumpet and Rafi Malkiel on trombone—the wind section—Itamar Doari and Rony Iwryn on percussion and Latin percussiona—and lead singer and impresario Ravid Kahalani. It was a spectacle for the ears, however, with perfectly timed openings and closings to each song. Their sound engineer is Jonathan Jacobi, who did an excellent job of mixing the sound so as not to drown out the vocals.

Call them The Magnificent Nine, after the classic Western The Magnificent Seven. One might easily imagine the lead singer going around his tiny Arabic country in search of his musical posse, each one offering a special expertise that blended into their total sound, much like Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn became Yul Brenner’s indispensable side arms and wound up saving a small town of peasant farmers from outlaws who robbed them every year during the harvest.

This band had as much loyalty as shared talent—one heard it in the way they were introduced—not some mere de facto pronouncement of their names but a reveling in who they were and what they contributed. It was a real band.

Lead singer Ravid Kahalani, was a talent unto himself—an amazing voice with a three octave range that put one in mind of one of the great voices of the 20th century—Yma Sumac from high up in the Andes. Just to invite the comparison is an indication of tremendous talent.

This music—some combination of Middle Eastern—both Jewish and Arabic—African and even American Creole musical textures is candidly out of my comfort zone—significantly so. But—as the lead singer so eloquently said—music is a universal language that comes straight from the heart—and speaks to the spirit of God in all of us.

One need not understand the cognitive meaning of each song to understand its emotional content and respond to the passion with which it is delivered. Yemen Blues is a powerful ambassador of a long bygone era in Yemen, a tiny fraction of Israelis that-- according to Wikipedia—emanates from a distinct tribe with a distinct language—neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic nor even the African remnant of Ethiopia.

“Never was a white man had the blues,” Leadbelly said in one of his inimitable song introductions. All I knew of Yemen before this concert was that it had terrorist connections to Al Qaeda, which would certainly give Israelis living there the right to sing the blues. To hear this world fusion folk rock blues band of dedicated Jewish musicians carry on their ancient and modern melodies is thus a bit unnerving and profoundly illuminating too.

They also have heartfelt connections to modern sources of musical inspiration; if you look at the official band You Tube trailer you will pick up clear influences of cutting techniques in a Beatles film, Hard Days Night; they came to play—and their fiercely loyal audience came to have a great time—and that they did. Royce Hall had to stretch a little tonight, as did I. There are not many bands that pass through who threaten to blow the roof off the place; Yemen Blues blew through like a hurricane, no holds barred. Hours after the concert, I can still feel them in my bones.

Blind Lemon Jefferson—who once sang that a match box would hold all of his clothes--would no doubt have felt that same sense of visceral connection to this blues band from the Middle East, half a world away.

Music, just like Delta blues master Robert Johnson said it was, is the crossroads.  Blind Lemon—meet Blind Yemen.

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com Ross and Jill Fenimore will be performing this Sunday at a fundraiser for the Red Cross and victims of Hurricane Sandy at 2:00pm, November 18 at The Church of Truth, 690 E. Orange Grove Blvd, Pasadena 91104. No cover charge, donations encouraged and collected will be sent to the Red Cross for hurricane relief.