Ravid Kahalani, founder of the new Israeli band Yemen Blues, takes a moment out of an exhilarating year to discuss his life and music.

Bombs. Gunfire. Armed checkpoints. Mainstream news headlines portray Israel as one of the most violent places in the world. Conflict is there, but it is only one part of a much larger picture.

Ravid Kahalani singing during a performance.

Enter Yemen Blues, a new band from Israel led by visionary singer Ravid Kahalani. Yemen Blues embodies Kahalani’s passionate belief in intrinsic human goodness and in music’s power to bring out the best in people and to cut across religious and cultural differences. “The truth is that as bad things are happening,” Kahalani states, “GOOD things are happening even more all the time.”

The band just released its first album and has toured from Israel to the United States performing a sound never before heard: blues blended with Yemenite Jewish chants, West African percussion, funk, and much, much more. Yemen Blues’ innovative, high-energy music is no doubt one part of their success. Their positivity also speaks to the many people who, like Kahalani, choose to look beyond the doom-and-gloom of news headlines and see the beautiful side of life.

The band

Born into a large Yemenite Jewish family in Israel, Kahalani grew up learning traditional religious chants. He inherited his family’s famous vocal skills and first demonstrated them at the synagogue at the young age of five. Truly an artistic chameleon, Kahalani later branched off to explore blues and soul music, acting, and percussion. Yet many of the seemingly disparate threads of his artistic experiences are in fact a natural progression of one another, especially his singing.

Voice students take note: Kahalani’s masterful vocal control and range reflect a natural talent perfected through a lifetime of practice and a passion for diverse musical styles. While performing in Serbia in 2004, he discovered the beauty of Orthodox Church music and undertook to learn its vocal techniques. This interest led to a serious two-year study of opera back in Israel.

Kahalani eventually “came home” to the Yemenite music of his childhood while performing as one half of the duo Desert Blues. This and similar musical undertakings, including singing with the Idan Raichel Project, fueled his creative vision and enhanced his expertise. Well-versed then in the music of North Africa, the Middle East, and beyond, where could he go from there?

In 2008, Kahalani met Omer Avital and all of his life’s musical experiences came together. An acclaimed composer, bassist, and oud player, Avital is also part Yemenite and grew up with a similarly rich background of religious, regional, and other music. He spent the first decade of his musical career in New York City steeped in jazz, leading bands and performing with legends such as Wynton Marsalis. Avital returned to Israel for a few years to study composition and Arabic and Israeli music, eventually working with Kahalani on the 2008 Israel Festival production of Debka Fantasia.

Yemen Blues’ ten-track eponymous album features Kahalani’s amazing voice and Avital’s instrumental arrangements performed by talented musicians from Israel, the United States, and Uruguay. Kahalani emphasizes that the group’s cohesion gives their music its strength. In interviews, he names each individual musician: Rony Iwryn (Latin percussion), Itamar Doari (Middle Eastern percussion), Itamar Borochov (trumpet), Galia Hai (viola), Hilla Epstain (cello), Hadar Noiberg (flute), Yohai Cohen (percussion), and Reut Regev (trombone). “You can see onstage how much power there is [in the music] because of the people,” Kahalani states.

The music

Through its music, Yemen Blues seeks to bring listeners to what Kahalani calls the “moment of the soul.” It is the fundamental goodness that he believes all people share. He stresses that basic human understanding “before any opinion or religion” is the essential foundation for a peaceful coexistence.

As the band’s name suggests, blues music provides the medium through which all other musical elements are mixed. Its free, improvisational nature and emotiveness suit the band’s mission and Kahalani’s creativity. He likens it to his own artistic experience that, like blues music, stretches across numerous different cultures. Kahalani uses it to link the many experiences of his life together and to connect with audiences around the world.

This studio session of “Um Min Al Yaman,” which describes a journey in a dream, captures the energy of Yemen Blues.

Yemen Blues’ band members clearly love performing together, and their collaborative energy carries over into the audience. Their music often fills listeners with such a sense of joy that it is not uncommon to see audience members of all ages dancing together in the aisles during concerts. The energy generated at performances is an important element of the music that the group successfully recreated on its first album. “We recorded the album entirely in one room with nothing between us so we could feel each others’ energy,” explains Kahalani.

Kahalani primarily sings in Yemenite Arabic, the language of his family. “I’m trying to learn everything back now,” he says. At the same time, he also pairs languages that fit best with the melody and the meaning of songs. “Trape La Verite,” for example, uses French Creole to describe the end of a romance. Kahalani’s singing is at its finest here, ranging from lullaby-like to wailing. The gentle instrumentization by Avital, especially of the percussion and strings, provides the perfect backing for this bittersweet song.

Yemen Blues performs “Trape La Verite” at Reading3 in Tel Aviv.

The bottom line

To date, Yemen Blues has performed from Israel to Spain and from Brazil to the United States, drawing critical praise wherever they go. More telling of their success, however, is their connection with audience members and the fact that they are genuinely fulfilling their musical vision. Yemen Blues works as a band because they have found the right creative medium—blues music—and truly believe in what they are doing. There is a lot of lip service paid to the “universality” of music, but this is a band that could even make a skeptic believe.

“Baraca,” performed at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, demonstrates the best of the band’s musical and collaborative skills.

Yemen Blues’ feverish performance schedule continues this summer, offering numerous opportunities to hear them live. Their website provides details about many of their performances, and check your local concert listings too for those not shown.

We look forward to catching Yemen Blues perform again in the San Francisco Bay Area this summer and expect a bright future for this talented and worthy band.

Ravid Kahalani photo by GANGI.


Senegalese acoustic music pioneer Pape Armand Boye connects with audiences through sincere, conscious artistry. A true “world musician,” he skillfully navigates the waters of this genre by retaining his own clear voice.

Pape Armand Boye and Clifton Hyde at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts
Pape Armand Boye and Clifton Hyde at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts

In March 2009, a crowd of nine hundred fans sat perched on the edge of the red plush seats in San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, awaiting the entrance of the Idan Raichel Project. Instead, the audience was startled by the appearance of an unanticipated feature act. Pape Armand Boye and Clifton Hyde walked calmly onto the stage, briefly tuned their guitars and then, with a natural ease, entered into a set of rich acoustic melodies that quickly won over any potential dissenters. The cavernous reaches of the Palace melted into an intimate space as the music invited audience members to lean in close and share in the simple act of two friends making music together and telling stories about life.

Originally from Senegal, Boye is a composer, instrumentalist, singer, producer, and arranger who leads a busy life performing and working on musical projects in New York City, France, and Germany. No matter where his music takes him, he remains deeply connected to Senegal where he and his brother pioneered its now-thriving acoustic music scene. His music—live or recorded—is a sincere, sensitive reflection of both his own life and of the human experience—its joys, but also its inevitable struggles.

Acoustic Senegal

Boye grew up in the small coastal city of Rufisque on the outskirts of Dakar, where very early on he experienced the wide array of music played on the radio, including many iconic West African artists. “When my mother was cooking, I would hear Lalo Keba Drame, the great Gambian korist,” he recalls, “and the sounds of Samba Diabare Samb, the legendary Senegalese xalam player.” Growing older, he was drawn to music like the folk rock of Bob Dylan, the roots reggae of Joseph Hill, and the ballads of Jacques Brel; to songs that coupled acoustic guitar and meaningful lyrics; and to the powerful voice of Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum.

The Boye brothers

Boye’s San Francisco performance was not very far from his musical debut on television with his brother Badou in the 1990s. The two brothers appeared on stage with nothing but acoustic guitars and a bass—a radical departure from the large mbalax ensembles then dominating Senegal’s popular music scene. Cutting through the synthesized sounds of mbalax, they introduced a style of music they believed authentically expressed the “softer, deeper side” of Senegal.

Senegalese acoustic music eventually took firm root, but not without the perseverance of the two brothers. “Even if the price to pay was high, I’m very proud of the battles we fought,” Boye emphasizes. Acoustic music coexists in Senegal today with the ever-popular mbalax and a prevalence of global music offerings. Boye views expanding to a wider music market as the next challenge for Senegal’s musicians. “There is a long way to go until our music becomes accessible to the Western consumer the way that reggae, blues, or salsa is,” he says.

Communicating and connecting

Pape Armand Boye

Boye speaks German and English in addition to his native tongues of French and Wolof, reflecting the very international nature of his work. He keenly understands the fine line a musician engaged in today’s world music genre must walk between artistry and marketability. “I think a lot of world music artists concentrate so much on communicating with the rest of the world that they lose who they are in the first place,” he says. “Whether it’s by becoming what others expect of them or just reproducing the music of others, in the end the artistry can get lost.”

Communication is, in fact, at the heart of Boye’s music, and is something he strives to do with authenticity and a strong sense of self in order to better connect with listeners. His masterful guitar and clear voice lead the way through gentle arrangements of violin, cello, bass, marimba, djembe, and other instruments. On the title track of Xareba (The Struggle), his most recent album, rap lyrics even enter the mix—providing a surprising complement to mandolin. Boye carefully crafts his songs based on years of experimenting across a variety of musical styles. When pressed to categorize his music, he describes it as “new African acoustic soul,” but cautions against focusing too much on genre labels.


Boye’s lyrics are as straightforward and sincere as his conversation. In “Hero Ak Ngayo” (“The War”), for example, he poignantly describes how misunderstanding and conflict are born, and how resolution can be reached:

“Hero Ak Ngayo”

Remember that day
your thoughts and mind had already changed’
that day you were full of anger and hate,
when all you wanted was war.

Now I see who you are’
I see all that you’ve done.
But you can wait for me;
I’m still coming.
When I get there we’ll talk.

It is important to Boye that his many listeners in the United States and Europe understand his songs. His albums provide translations of the Wolof lyrics into English and French, and during live performances, Boye pauses between songs to explain their meaning.

“When I sing or play,” he says, “I’m telling my listeners how I feel and what I’ve lived—the same way a friend tells you their story. It’s deeply personal. In the end, I want people to find themselves in what I’ve felt and lived.”

Coming up

Boye and Hyde will bring their onstage musical chemistry to an all-acoustic album coming out later this year. Originally from Mississippi, Hyde exhibits virtuosic mastery of numerous stringed folk instruments, including guitar, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, and zither. He dazzled the Palace of Fine Arts audience playing Boye’s compositions on steel guitar, and this album promises to be no less exciting.

In addition to his longtime collaboration with Hyde, Boye often performs and records with a full band, as he did with Xareba. He and the band are currently hard at work to produce a new album by spring 2012, one that will feature Boye’s uniquely personal songs with a backing of innovative string and percussion arrangements.

As he records and performs, Boye continues to connect with listeners around the world in a sincere, authentic way by staying firmly on his own course as he did in the 1990s when pioneering acoustic music with his brother in Senegal. “They key is to know about the best from others,” he states, “But in the end it’s all about giving the best of yourself. It’s not easy, but it’s amazing when it works.”

Palace of Fine Arts photo by Joolimei.

All other photos courtesy Pape Armand Boye.