Middle East meets West
Al-Yaman continues to refine their transcontinental sound
No band better personifies the effect that Prague's multicultural community has on local music than Al-Yaman.
Founded in 2000, Al-Yaman has thrived on lyricist/singer/lute player Ashwaq Abdulla Kulaib's emotive vocals and multi-instrumentalist/producer Aleš Hyvnar's (aka Al-esh) meticulous attention to detail. The remaining members of the group help bridge the sonic folklore of Yemen with Central European electro-rock prowess, haling from Yemen, Israel, Palestine and the Czech Republic.
This month, the band is releasing their second CD, Insanyya (on the Czech Indies label), following the success of their 2004 award-winning debut disc Hurriya. Once again, Al-Yaman has made a world-class statement by melding vast electronic rock dynamics with Arab classical music, the three-string Middle Eastern lute known as a saz and a mix of traditional and original lyrics sung in Yemeni Arabic.
"The way I write my lyrics and the way I sing is completely different from where I'm from in Yemen," Al-Yaman founder/singer and saz player Kulaib says over late-morning tea in Malá Strana. "Yemen is one of the Arabic countries where they still don't mix modern music much with native music. But just because I'm working with Al-Yaman does not mean I don't like folklore or tradition."
Al-Yaman's music is not a shock or deliberate break from the past. Instead, it leverages Czech compositional strength in a rocking format with roots in Kulaib's homeland, which houses some of the world's oldest cities. And the scales driven by Kulaib's voice and saz are not the only things she brings from Yemen. Asked about her childhood, she lights up like a lamp, and the first word that comes out is "Freedom. I had freedom already when I was a small kid in Aden. As a child, I did what I liked."
Freedom is also an important element in the singing and poetry of Yemen, which is filled with improvisation. This vocal freedom and playfulness sometimes creates a tension with Al-Yaman's heavily programmed and composed sound. But, over the years, Al-Esh, working both in the studio and onstage, has learned to open space for improvising. It's a feedback loop that works especially well live.
"It comes from the audience," Kulaib says. "They give you this energy, and you push that."
Adding to the band's propulsion at their upcoming CD-release concert at Akropolis will be guests from both the local and international music communities. Asian Dub Foundation guitarist Steve Savale is rumored to be coming, though that was unverifiable at press time. Other guest artists will include guitarist and Zawinul Syndicate veteran Amit Chatterjee, and lute maestro Marwan Alsolaiman from Prague's premier classical Arabic ensemble, Ziriab. And, as Al-Yaman audiences have come to expect, the exemplary Czech percussionist Tomáš Reindl, who has recently also been playing with the progressive jazz unit Limbo, will add considerable spice to the mix with his eclectic, globe-trotting experience.
As usual, Al-Yaman concertgoers can expect to hear a lush, sophisticated world beat sound, far more inventive than it is derivative. If the band's new CD is any indication, soon audiences the world over should have a chance to experience it live.