Rough-hewn and exhilarating, EL Khat's second album "Albat Alawi Op.99" is a deep dive into leader Eyal el Wahab's Yemenite roots and their inspired re-imaginings. A careening orchestra of percussion, horns, strings, electricity and el Wahab's own DIY instruments. Mesmerizing retro-futurist sounds.
El Khat. Named for the drug used so widely chewed across the Middle East, the band’s music is certainly addictive, more so with each outing. Their second album, Albat Alawi Op.99, is a disc full of joys, where the melodies unfold one after the other, involving and catchy.
“I tried to be simple in the structure,” explains Eyal el Wahab, the group’s leader and heart, who composed and arranged almost everything on the album. Albat Alawi Op.99 is very much his vision. “It’s a bit like pop music, where the soul is four chords and a melody. The difference is in the expression.”
That sense of expression and meaning flows through the first single, “Djaja,” where he sings “From Yemen and beyond America/ We are all together and I am alone.” This is music that both looks over the shoulder to his family’s past and forward to the world that lies outside.
El Wahab plays many of the instruments on the album, things like the dli and the kearat that he constructed himself. A skilled carpenter, it’s something he started doing several years ago, using his skills to make music from the items people discard. A child of the Yemeni diaspora who’s grown up in Tel Aviv Jaffa, Israel, it’s a practice that harks back to the family homeland, where even rubbish can become an instrument.
“People simply play on a tin can there,” he says. “Here, people thrown things out, treasure or junk, and I transform it.”
But el Wahab has always been a man of invention. He talked his way into the Jerusalem Andalusian Orchestra as a cellist, self-taught from busking and unable to read music, learning the repertoire by ear as he went along, and picking up music theory. It gave him a strong foundation, but his world changed when he was given ‘Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen’ an LP of Yemeni traditional music from the 1960s. It came as an epiphany. He quit the orchestra, began building instruments and put together El Khat.
Albat Alawi Op.99 is an album of glorious contrasts, from the fiery workout of “Ala Al Ma” to the title cut which closes the album. It is a piece, el Wahab notes, “that has no regular instruments. Everything is made from metal or plastic or wood.” The track is the embodiment of his scavenging, recycling ethos, a powerful statement; for him “it was important for it to be there right at the end.”
Like all music in 2020, the recording of Albat Alawi Op.99 was affected by the global pandemic. Israel enforced a very strict, early lockdown to try and halt the progress of Covid, so the band couldn’t meet. “You can write at home, anywhere,” el Wahab says. "But we hit an obstacle with the quarantine here. It was almost impossible to get together to rehearse or make the album. In the end we recorded separately, doing everything in layers. At one point, though, I did manage to have a choir of seven people in the living room, singing into two microphones.”
Then, as the country’s first lockdown ended, the process was put on hold again as two of the band went to live in the desert for six months, far from phones and computers. It meant that the album wasn’t completed until the spring of 2021, and what emerged surprised him.
“Once you have put something on paper, you have an idea of what is what, but it changes when it’s played. With this album, there turned out to be so much depth.”
It’s an album filled with emotions, starting with the lonely clarion call of the violin on the opener “Ma’afan,” a barnstormer of a song that builds on the foundation of a simple riff to become something majestic, the percussion as powerful as any of the melodic instruments, before exploding into a final glory of brass. It makes for a breathtaking starting point, setting a pace that keeps marching on. “La Sama” begins with brooding piano notes to become a prayer of hope: “No sky, no blue/How high can you dream?”
“El Khat,” fittingly for a song named after the band, offers a broad welcome, a thick, inviting groove powered by bass and percussion, with some scorching guitar work as crown of its creation.
Where the last album, Saadia Jefferon, saw Eyal el Wahab bring a funky, psychedelic re-imagination to the traditional Yemeni songs that electrified him when he first heard them, this is a disc almost entirely filled with his own compositions, something close and personal that constantly looks back to his family’s homeland on the Arabian Peninsula.
“I don’t have a message,” he says. “I just want to be closer to my roots, to express myself better. And the concept of using what people don’t need is vital. A tin can is so important to me. It’s not trash.”
Nothing is wasted. Even the album’s title, Albat Alawi Op.99, is pieced together from other things. It’s partly an homage to Faisal Alawi, a popular Yemeni singer who died in 2010, along with an alba, a small tin box that can contain many treasures, while the Op.99 is intended to give the compositions “the same respect as Western classical music.”
Open the alba. Discover the treasures that are waiting inside