Yemen Blues Raises Money for Doctors Without Borders

Yemen Blues is coming to Denver on November 3.
Yemen Blues is coming to Denver on November 3. Photo by Viktor Muperphoto, courtesy of Ravid Kahalani
Yemen Blues, the multicultural Judeo-Arabic Afro-funk band, is bringing a mashup of global sounds to Denver for a concert at the Jewish Community Center's Elaine Wolf Theatre on November 3.

The group will be performing a musical rendition of Hallel, a Jewish prayer from the Book of Psalms. The concert will be one of many music and arts events during the annual Neustadt JAAMM Fest, which markets itself as the "most comprehensive Jewish cultural arts festival in all of Colorado."

The musical performance, led by the nine-piece band's stylish frontman, Ravid Kahalani, promises to be energetic, with rhythms from across the African continent combined with Hebrew lyrics sung with an Arabic accent.

We spoke with Kahalani to learn more about the band's origins and the upcoming show in Denver.

Westword: Tell me a bit about yourself.

Kahalani: I was born in Israel to a Jewish Yemenite family. My father came from Yemen when he was around seven.

I grew up in Israel, partly in the center of Israel, near Tel Aviv. And partly in a settlement before there was any issue about the settlement. I grew up as a Jewish Yemenite religious kid, and I grew up praying and following all the Yemenite Jewish rituals.

When I left home around fifteen, I was listening to different music, and I had a very strong influence from my traditional life as a kid. I started to listen to lots of blues and funk and lots of African-American influences. Later, when I discovered African music, it was kind of life-changing, and I started to write music and songs based on all of my influences, and that was the beginning of Yemen Blues.

What's a Yemen Blues show like?

One of the greatest things in the shows of Yemen Blues is how it’s really coming from super-different political backgrounds, and we are really in the space together. We’re in a space together.

They know that I'm a Jew; they know that I lived in Israel. They know all these things about me. In the crowd, there are different political backgrounds. You can see Muslims and Jews and Christians and immigrants — you can see all of them. They have different opinions. It’s like reminding people of how similar we are and how powerful is our basic understanding of being a human being...and to really remember this simple place, because it’s really important.

What is special about your current tour?

It’s a composition of mine — with big help and directing by Omer Avital on the arrangement — for this nine-piece Book of Psalms prayer. Between the gospel and Arabic harmonies and the Jewish texts and the Jewish prayer, it’s combining all of that together.

This is our first tour of this project. For years, we were less peaceful on stage. We are doing this band again of nine musicians. We have a few special guests, and it’s becoming even more international with the amazing drummer Nikki Glasby. She is an award-winning drummer and also worked with Beyoncé for five years and Jay-Z and George Michael. And also, instead of Omer Avital, we’re featuring Shanir Blumenkranz, a New York-based American musician.

What will the Hallel concert experience be like?

It’s really intense and spiritual, and can be dancey and kind of in between the sounds of funk and Jewish spirit and Arabic pronunciation. When a Yemenite Jew prays in Hebrew, even though the words are in Hebrew, the pronunciation is like Arabic. Most of the prayers that we are going to do in the show will be in a Yemenite pronunciation.

What feedback have you gotten from folks in Yemen?

Lots of people from Yemen send me messages that it’s nice. Even though I was never in Yemen and I can never go there, sadly. I believe that one day I will go there.

They see hope in presenting music with the name of Yemen and creating something from this culture and connecting this culture to good things. Sometimes they ask me to send them videos to give them hope because they are under attack. Also, we have a special donation that will benefit, and we are going to partner with Doctors Without Borders to raise money for the children of Yemen and their work in Yemen. I will do anything that I can to support those kinds of organizations that do amazing jobs all over the world

What's your pitch for Denver residents to come to the concert?

It’s a Jewish festival. But I would really like to reach the African-American community and Arabic community in Denver, and have all of those people to come and see how connected we are and enjoy a really amazing, incredible group that came together to play this and celebrate our similarity and the joys of connecting.

The nine musicians that will be there on stage are award-winning musicians that have worked with the most famous pop stars and musicians in the world. I’m very proud and honored to be on stage with those people.

Yemen Blues plays at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, November 3, at the JCC's Wolf Theatre, 350 South Dahlia Street. Tickets and proceeds from the Yemen Blues tour will be dedicated to Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit medical organization currently doing humanitarian work in Yemen. Donate to the campaign here, and purchase tickets for the show, $32 to $36, here.

Hear Yemen Blues and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.