Something unusual was happening at Toronto’s Koerner Hall.
To outside observers it might have looked like this: A mature, sophisticated audience, one that had started the evening by listening in its habitual, mild, sophisticated audience way, had suddenly risen to its feet mid-song, hands stretched over heads in a cacophony of clapping.
The architect of this raucous Royal Conservatory display was one Ravid Kahalani, a sinewy, braided, longhaired man in a shiny metallic suit who commanded the stage with such charismatic verve that almost everyone in attendance, including a few grandmother-aged participants, began to dance in their seats with enough energy to power a few windmills. A Brahms matinee performance this was not.
Kahalani is perhaps better known as the driving force behind Yemen Blues, an Israeli world music ensemble that has generated enthusiastic underground buzz since they made their debut at the Babel Med festival in Marseilles three years ago.
On Oct. 26, Kahalani and his dynamic five-piece band showed Toronto why they warrant the attention.
Though their music, a blend of original fusion sounds sung in Arabic, Hebrew and French, may not be suited to everyone’s tastes, the 35-year-old front man’s gifts as a live performer – the incredible energy he manages to create and the connection he builds with his audience – position him as an artist worth watching in any language.
It’s no surprise, then, that the former dance student pays close attention to the more theatrical elements of his show.
“Many things that I do on stage are very thoughtful and I enjoy seeing the result of it,” he explains in a pre-show interview, fresh off a 12-hour flight from Ben Gurion airport.
“When you can control the situation and give people something, bring something out of them and they enjoy it in a special way, it’s very exciting to see.”
With Yemen Blues’ debut album making the rounds and a second one currently in the works, the former protégé of Israeli superstar Idan Raichel appears to have finally hit his musical sweet spot.
“I wouldn’t say that I found my sound because it’s not only my sound even though it started from me,” he says with modesty, acknowledging the contributions of his fellow band members. “[But] I took the album as my first solo project and I would say that I found myself in music when I created Yemen Blues.”
Though Kahalani’s natural talent made performing an inevitable career, his fascination with world music shaped him into the artist he has become.
The son of Jewish-Yemenite parents who came to Israel in order to escape political unrest, Kahalani cut his musical teeth on the songs and prayers of his ancestral home, but quickly found that his appetite extended far beyond familiar sounds.
“With time, I started to listen to blues and jazz and Bob Marley and Pink Floyd and I totally left the Yemenite music,” he says, noting that he even spent time mastering Serbian Orthodox liturgical singing in his teens.
“I later met a friend who introduced me to West and North African music and this changed my life musically. I began to understand the connection between blues and Yemenite music, and Moroccan music and West African music, and all North African music, and so many other genres that came out of it like jazz and blues and funk and rock n’ roll.”
Instead of experimenting with one sound, he began to experiment with all of them, singing in whatever language his music demanded. In his youth, he even invented language to suit a song’s particular rhythm or tenor when no existing words would do.
This sensitivity to what the melody and instrumentation demand has led industry types to label Kahalani as a fusion artist. It’s a label he rejects.
“I don’t think to frame music [in genres] is the right thing. I think that comes from a business place that people need to place music in categories, but these day when you see all kinds of fusion and culture music that combines many things, it’s getting harder and harder [for executives] to put this music into boxes, so I don’t really spend too much time thinking about it,” he says.
The business end of the industry is often the necessary evil for artists who would rather be focused on creating and performing, but Kahalani isn’t exactly complaining about the opportunities the industry has provided him.
At the same time, he says he doesn’t feel any pressure to strive for a more mainstream sound in order to increase radio play at home in Israel.
“I don’t think a musician creates music because he wants to be on the radio. He creates music because it makes him feel something. He thinks that this thing is beautiful and he loves it and thinks it works well,” he says.
“[If anything,] my fame gives me strength to create more and feel more comfortable because it gives [me] the feeling that [I’m] good, that [I’m] bringing something that is true.”
While that creative energy continues to burn, Kahalani is busy honing his onstage craft and enjoying the chance to play for international audiences on an increasingly frequent basis.
Last month’s show marks Yemen Blues’ third time in Canada, a country whose multicultural tapestry makes him feel at home.
“Canada is great. It feels kind of like home to play here,” the jet-lagged performer concludes before heading to rest up before his big show. “People are really open and really into what they love with no borders. They very much respect the music in a professional and a spiritual way and those two things are the most important.”
His love for Canada mutually affirmed, those who missed the opportunity to see him live this time shouldn’t have to wait too long for another chance.