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.”