PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


El Khat Reshape Yemeni Jewish Traditions with Brilliance and Love on 'Saadia Jefferson'

Photo: Dunja Opalko

El Khat is a project of equal parts technical skill and intangible humanity, and Saadia Jefferson a singular masterpiece.

Saadia Jefferson
El Khat

Batov Records

23 November 2019

To chew the leaves of the khat where it grows along the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa is to experience euphoria in the present while partaking in regional communal practices millennia old. It's an action rooted both within the self and outside of one’s self, in the vastness of history. The very name of the plant evokes a network of symbolic meanings.

That makes it perfect for El Khat, a quartet led by brilliant Yemeni-Israeli composer and musician Eyal El Wahab that takes an innovative hand to old Yemeni sounds as passed down in popular music of decades past. It was documented most recently in Dust-to-Digital's 2013 compilation Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen, a direct inspiration for El Wahab.

New album Saadia Jefferson is a wonderful look El Wahab and the other three members of his Tel Aviv-based crew, who hail from Iraq, Poland, and Morocco. The ensemble interprets Yemen's sonic past from a contemporary vantage point that takes into account the modern reality of war, displacement, and relocation so formative to communities of Yemeni Jews in Israel today by incorporating the sonic profile of a fluidly cosmopolitan West Asian region.

On Saadia Jefferson, the way this profile manifests in practice is broadly variable, ranging from modes to instruments to found sounds of subway cars and bleating goats. El Wahab, a carpenter, crafts many instruments out of discarded materials in an expression of the poverty common among displaced Yemeni communities.

There are songs of vintage-styled psychedelic pop, like 1960s-esque opener "Ya Raiyat", which begins with an ecstatically heterophonic burst of horns before quickly rolling into a catchy mid-tempo melody driven by a wordless chorus and underscored by squiggly synths. In stark contrast is following track "Ptiha", two minutes of the sounds of sheep and goats combined with rustic percussion and nimbly rough-edged voices. It ends with the unmistakably airy rush of oncoming public transit -- a drastic shift between old and new that fits well El Khat's collective vision of understanding the position of ancient Yemeni Jewish communities within the nation of Israel.

Variety plays throughout Saadia Jefferson. The rolling time signatures and poignant melancholy of "Balagh Al Achbaab" are exquisite, the repetition of single lines by each instrument turn in the two parts of "Atabina" for an engaging round. A solo trumpet line at the beginning of "Wahed Mozawej" gives way to complex textures of bass-heavy strings evocative of Levantine dabke dance music and make it one of the album's most intense moments.

The album's penultimate track ends with a serene duet between cello and violin as jazzy, upbeat "Marhaban Ahlan" fades. The epilogue, part two of "Al Ard' Amamak", is a brief minute of electric guitar with a sharp, satisfying sting to it.

There are no throwaway sounds here. Intent marks every second. And while each member of El Khat brings their experience to the table, they also have a clear understanding of and appreciation for the traditions they emulate and reconfigure in these pieces. While Saadia Jefferson fits savvily into extant trends toward retro revivals in the international folk fusion music marketplace, it doesn't do so for the sake of rehashing. This is a heartfelt expression of love for a culture brutally disenfranchised. It’s also an opportunity for members of that culture to continue to influence new works of creativity. El Khat is a project of equal parts technical skill and intangible humanity, and Saadia Jefferson a singular masterpiece.

Related Articles Around the Web

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.