Loolwa Khazzoom

Yemen Blues Ignites Audience with Primal Howl

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been composing music, or “making stuff up,” as I called it when I was a little girl. During elementary school in San Francisco, I began studying classical piano, and my mother began suggesting, both enthusiastically and relentlessly, that I blend our sacred Iraqi Jewish songs with classical piano motifs, in original fusion compositions. “Moooooom,” I’d respond, in a typical daughter wail.

Why couldn’t I just be normal?

Shy of a decade later, Yemenite-Israeli singer Ofra Haza exploded on the international music scene, combining ancient Yemenite Jewish prayers with original lyrics and house music. I was living in New York City and dancing the nights away at local clubs, where Haza’s hit songs – like “Im Anin Alu” – inevitably blasted in the speakers, at some point during the night. I not only loved her music but felt a fierce sense of pride and connection whenever her songs came on.

My mom, a woman ahead of her time, totally called it.

In the years since, numerous Israeli musicians – Sarit Hadad, Eyal Golan, Rita, A-Wa, and others – created their own East/West, ancient/modern blend, drawing on traditional Middle Eastern Jewish prayers or musical styles and combining those sounds with the contemporary sounds of hip hop, jazz, reggae, soul, rock, blues, and more. I immersed myself in this music, and 35 years after my mother’s first nudge, began creating my own fusion blend in 2016 – a punk rock rendition of traditional Iraqi Jewish prayers and conscious lyrics, sung in Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, and English. 

In the white, Christian, rural area where I live in the Pacific Northwest, there is always a pregnant pause following my performances, with a “What the f*** just happened?” look on faces in the audience. “I’ve never heard music like yours,” people routinely tell me.

Still, I was not prepared for a Yemen Blues concert.

I recently saw this Israeli band in Seattle, on the second to last stop of their December tour. Lead singer Ravid Kahalani was a force – raw, wild, and primal. As he fluidly thrashed about the stage in a dance that was deeply-embodied, spontaneous, and ecstatic, he also seamlessly traversed sounds and realms – ancient Yemenite chanting one minute, gut-wrenching howls the next. The band dexterously criss-crossed musical terrains in sync with Kahalani, weaving together Middle Eastern, psychedelic, heavy metal, and even punk rock elements – ultimately leaving me stunned like my own audience, wondering what the f*** just happened.

It was exhilarating. Thrilling.

In a mass-produced world of carbon copies and cookie cutters, Yemen Blues is an original – the kind of band that you have to experience, to truly understand. “[Kahalani] does whatever the f*** he wants,” said audience member Meira, who preferred not to use her last name. “That’s why I love him.”

“‘There is music and art on one end and show business on the other end,’” concurred audience member Sahil Desai, quoting a local musician he met at a recent open mic. “You have people like Taylor Swift, whose primary goal is to appeal to the masses, and then you have people like Yemen Blues, who are the origin artists.” 

Yemen Blues does not try to please the crowd, Desai elaborated, but rather, the musicians allow their music to meander wherever they want it to go. “It’s a bit niche…you need a lot of knowledge about the space and sound for it to be palatable, in particular, the style of singing and the dancing,” Desai mused, adding that as “amazing” as the performance was, he would not bring to it friends who were “not well-cultured.”

Not only did the instruments represent the world – an oud from the Middle East, congas from Latin America, a gimbri from North Africa, and an electric bass and trap set from the West – but musicians also played them in unique ways. During one song, for example, drummer Dan Mayo dragged his drum stick along a cowbell, instead of hitting it, while Kahalani banged on the gimbri rhythmically, instead of strumming the strings.

Then there was the dancer, Chen Agron, also a study in contrast. She initially appeared wearing a long black cloak and a white drama mask on both sides of her straight, black hair – each mask decorated with different colors and expressions. She began dancing slowly, with an air of mystery, her back to the audience – yet “facing” us with one of her masks. 

Abruptly, she dropped the cloak, revealing a long black dress with a thigh-high slit and knee-high, shiny, black leather boots: a costume at the intersections of goth and fetish. Unlike in the case of performative erotic dance, however – designed for male fantasy and consumption – she began thrashing about wildly, in fierce, raw, and primal movements. This dance was an explosion of power, clearly for Agron’s own freedom and pleasure, as she fully inhabited her body.

“Her dancing was very raw and emotional, and it stirred something inside me,” revealed audience member Hadar Friedman. “It helped me feel more connected to all the dancing that we love to do in all the different festivals in Israel. I used to go to a lot of festivals when I lived there, some right close to the Nova festival.” 

The Nova Festival was an Israeli rave held in Israel on Oct 7, 2023. During the event, Hamas infiltrated the Israeli border and shot, beat, burned alive, decapitated, and otherwise massacred festival attendees, and additionally gang-raped women, sometimes near the women’s dead friends, then dragged the women around, sometimes alive, sometimes dead.

Agron “was defiant,” said Meira, elaborating that the dance felt like a reclamation of the integrity and power of the Jewish female body. 

“When the dancer first came out on stage and started dancing,” concurred Friedman, “the first thing that came to my head was all the people dancing on Oct 7. I felt very guilty, but then when I saw her continuing on and doing this raw thing, it felt so real that I was like, well, if she is taking that back, I can do that too.”

The entire concert, in fact, was less of a “performance” and more of a primal howl, a wake-up call of freedom and transcendence, a catalyst for transmutation – pain morphing spontaneously into a portal for healing. And this, at the core, is the power of music, when we allow it to emanate from the deepest place of our essence – unbridled, unshackled, musical norms and social conventions be damned. 

Through their willingness to be radically vulnerable, courageous, and uninhibited, Yemen Blues gives its audience radical permission to discover and express who we truly are. 

And that is art at its finest.

About the Author
Loolwa Khazzoom ( is the frontwoman for the band Iraqis in Pajamas ( and editor of The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage ( She has been a pioneering Jewish multicultural educator since 1990, and her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Rolling Stone, and other top media worldwide.
Related Topics
Related Posts