Ravid Kahalani's music is indescribable – and that's just the way he likes it
The Israeli singer has been compared to everyone from Prince to James Brown. But the truth is a little more nuanced.
Ravid Kahalani likes to experiment.
After moving out of his parent's home at the age of 15, he was, in no particular order: a bartender, an actor, a chef, an opera singer and a drag queen. "I have a problem," Kahalani told From The Grapevine. "When I do something that I'm not there 100%, I get impatient really, really fast, and it's really difficult when you're impatient to learn things."
Fortunately, the 41-year-old Kahalani has evolved with age. For the past decade, he has found focus as the lead singer of Yemen Blues, a band whose sound is so eclectic that it's been dubbed "genre-defying." Which, come to think of it, makes perfect sense considering Kahalani's wide-ranging resume. Audiences will get to hear for themselves when he performs in New York City next week.
But on this particular morning, lounging on a red chair in his Jerusalem apartment, the multi-hyphenate is waxing poetic about his journey. Growing up in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv, he admits to being attracted to performing since he was 4. "I loved doing all kinds of imitations of Israeli singers," he said, "and I was wearing my mother's clothes and heels and wigs."
After leaving home as a teen, he found himself in odd places – a job on the beach, working in community theater, joining a dance company. His taste in music spanned the spectrum – "I was listening all day to jazz and blues and funk" – and then a friend introduced him to African music. He met another guy from Uruguay who got him interested in Latin music. For the ever-curious Kahalani, he wanted to fuse it all together. He began writing songs and, with the help of a composer friend named Omer Avital, they started a band, Yemen Blues. "We had no rules of the outcome of the music, and I think that was a real kind of creation to go anywhere we want," he explained. "It was very experimental."
Their songs are hard to define. Some have the soulful harmonies of gospel, while others are infused with the sonic influences of funk with a hint of the Mediterranean. Some are in Hebrew, others in English. There's even one in French creole. "I try to really learn all the time from every little thing that I look at and stumble in my everyday life and learn from it and be open to it and try all kinds of things. I am always throwing myself into situations even if I don't know what will happen.This is how you widen your diversity. This is how you get inspiration."
The group has been touring for a decade, mostly in the two countries where Kahalani splits his time – the U.S. and Israel. They will be performing a show on Christmas Eve at Joe’s Pub in New York City. In March, they're planning a European tour. Those who attend his concerts are in for a treat as Kahalani moves across the stage like a man possessed. He cites Prince and Queen's Freddie Mercury as muses, while others have compared his performance style to that of Michael Jackson and James Brown. "I believe that with music it really gives a lot more power when you get a real performance to go with that. I think it's much more powerful," he said. "I was always kind of a suicidal person in the performance. And I never had rules. Frames and routines and rules make me really depressed. I need to feel free with anything that I do. When I love something, I really try to go all the way with that. I think there is no other way to do it."
That passion drives Kahalani to continually evolve. "I intend to be an activist as much as I am a musician," he said, adding that he wants to get involved with humanitarian organizations. On his last tour, part of the proceeds were donated to Doctors Without Borders for a hospital project in Yemen, where Kahalani's grandparents hail from.
As he leans back in his chair, his hands shift from playing with his scruffy black beard to tussling his long curly hair. He looks away, contemplating his journey so far. "All I tried to do with music is to reconnect and to get the simplicity of how humans can be for each other," he said, pausing briefly. "I think creating music is a lot about listening."
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Related Topics: Music