Hailing from a mixture of nationalities with Jewish roots, Bahla took form after Venezuelan pianist Joseph Costi crossed paths with English guitarist Tal Janes. Their meeting lifted the lid off a collection of Jewish folk melodies preserved in their respective childhood memories, albeit in two different corners of the world. After researching the wide spread geography and history of the music, ranging from North-African rhythms, liturgical melodies and yiddish art songs from Russia and, they decided to bring their findings to life through their music, and so to Bahla was born. With their debut album ‘Imprints’ released last month, Bahla have been breaking new ground with their unique mix of cinematic jazz entangled with Jewish folklore and will be taking their music to venues nationwide next month. Ahead of their first UK tour, we talked to the London-based outfit about the concept of their band and the intricacies of their musical style.
Firstly, can you guys shed some light on the meaning behind the name ‘Bahla’?
We just came up with it and it felt right but later discovered that it’s a city in Oman so if you type us into google, you get a lot about cookies and the Bahla fort.
Your debut album ‘Imprints’ was released last month (congrats!!), tell us more about the concept behind this initial body of work?
Thank you! Well the band initially formed in 2014 and our sound has developed a fair bit along the way so it just felt like the right time to record. We played at the London Jazz Festival in 2016 and wanted to write a new set of music for it and also decided to book some studio time for the following month. Up until then, we had mainly been focusing on music from Russia and realised that a lot of the music we had been discovering from places like Morocco, Yemen & Russia, in one way or another traced back to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. We decided to use that event as a writing point which got us thinking about the bigger picture of displacement, identity and how cultures shift and adapt. It was fascinating to see how the communities adapted to their new surroundings through their music and we found there was always a thread and Jewish ‘sound’ which tied them together. There was the side of it like ok… we have all of these influences, we’re living in London, we have this shared jewish identity which isn’t religious…how do we make sense of it all.
There is a wonderful variety of influences in your music, both historic and geographical, tell us about some of them and are there any that you place particular emphasis?
The beautiful thing of being alive right now is that we have so much access to music and history. Especially in London, you can go see Opera, Afro-Cuban Bata music, Jazz, literally anything you could dream of so its hard to talk about influences but for this project we mainly used the internet to dig deeper the history of Jewish music, these are a few:
The first major influence was a Russian cantor called Louis Danto who was part of the Yiddish Art Song movement in the early 1900’s which was essentially classical musicians re-working old yiddish folk songs. We found his singing completely arresting and took a lot of inspiration from how much fluidity the music had. If you listen to Track 3 – Lid Fun Esterke here – it’s so beautifully haunting.
After that we began looking at music from Morocco and discovered a rabbi called Haim Louk. This music is mainly Piyutim which is community prayer music which is very melodic and repetitive. The man has a voice of an angel. Joseph wrote a song called Piyut which is a tribute to that style.
There’s an Israeli singer called Gila Beshari who has Yemenite origins and found a lot of Yemenite womens folk songs on the internet. That was another piece of the puzzle which got us thinking about writing in odd time signatures and different types of melodies. There’s also a very old tape my mum owns of a singer called Ofra Haza. She also has Yemen origins and there’s one song which felt really nostalgic of a style of Israeli folk songs so I wrote a song called Monavar which is dedicated to my grandmother, who is originally from Iran – (this didn’t make the album but we still play it live)
Your music strikes a delicate balance between honouring Jewish folk traditions and exploring an authentic and ethereal plane of jazz music, has this style materialised organically or is there a methodology behind your compositions?
I think it’s been an organic journey. The more our research developed the more we had to write about. We met whilst studying Jazz at university and it started off very much as an acoustic jazz ensemble but since then, we’ve expanded our vision of what the band can be and have embraced a lot of our other influences.
We just totally immersed ourselves in the music, documentaries, books and so when it came to writing, the initial ideas which came out felt organic and not like a direct pastiche. It’s not always an easy thing to talk about but we tried to write more conceptually and the songs each have a story of their own with characters that develop in the narrative. Also, we made narrative style video for the song Imprints (out some time this year) which was written after watching a documentary on the Syrian refugee crisis. It was one thing to try and reflect that in the music but exploring that visually alongside the music was a really exciting process. We could talk about it in theory and why we did certain things but It’s about using everything you know to say something.
How important is your chosen instrumentation in recreating your style of music and are there any additional instruments used on the album?
We decided to treat the recording mostly as a studio album so we didn’t shy away from overdubbing and post production. It was the first time we used a Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Percussion and Acoustic guitar. The whole process actually fed back into our live performances and led us to trying to recreate some of the sounds we made in the studio. Ines our singer is also a great percussionist and has small set up for gigs now, the guitar has more effect pedals and we also use a Nord in addition to a piano. For our launch we even had two bass drums! Our drummer Ben keeps joking we’re slowly becoming a prog-rock band…maybe he’s not wrong. Also, Alex Killpartrick who recorded and mixed the album had a huge part to play in the sound.
Having said that, at the core of everything is still a fairly traditional line up which and there a few tracks on the album which are more raw and live. Adding vocals to the group was a game changer and Ines was keen to sing in Hebrew and Ladino which gave us the chance have a more direct connection to the music we had been checking out. It also allowed us to write songs with words in English which is a whole other world that’s really interesting to explore.
Your music has been described as ‘cinematic’, ‘calm’ and ‘ruminative’, under what conditions do you like to picture people listening to your music?
It’s something we think about a lot – how people are listening to music at the moment, live and at home. It’s interesting how at the moment, more and more people are switched on to seeing live Jazz which means there are larger venues with bigger sound systems. I think as a musician you react differently to your instrument and the music depending on the environment and our music has some very quiet and ethereal moments as well some very loud and in your face moments. Instinctively we’re drawn to sit down and listen type venues where there’s silence and people can engage but I would really like to throw Bahla into different situations to see how we react…what would happen if we played a rock or indie night… I had a mental block for some reason that it’s not ok to play quiet, delicate music in a huge space but that’s changing.
You originally set out to form 2 EPs as opposed to one complete album, what changed your mind in the end?
This is connected to the previous question – I felt that an album is too much for people to fully digest, especially as a new band and that we could potentially get more mileage out of it. But, it was originally recorded as an album and once we decided that we would self-release, we thought 2 EPs would be better but eventually decided artistically, it’s one piece of work and really it should be released as that.
As well as moving historical and traditional sentiments in your music, there is an added poignancy created in the context of the mass displacement and uprooting of people we see across the world today. How far do you promote a message on today’s socio-political climate in your music?
Living in London it feels fairly normal to us to be a band with members from Venezuela, Portugal, Italy and U.K. making Jewish inspired music. It’s a statement in itself that our multi-cultured society leads to new possibilities and is something that needs to be cherished and looked after. Most of the messages lie within the music and we’re not as active as some of the other musicians we know but, it’s something we hope to do more of in the future.
You’re about to launch your first album tour, have you sorted your tour bus and how excited are you to take your music across the country and over the border to Edinburgh?
Very excited indeed. There are a million things to sort out and transportation is still one of them but we’ll get there one way or another. It’s going to be a great opportunity to approach the music differently each night. Our London date at Pizza Express on the 27th is the last of our February dates which we’re really looking forward to because of all the playing we will have done together by then.
Bahla’s ‘Imprints’ Tour February 2018:
2nd – Norwich | Anteros Arts Foundation
14th – Sheffield |The Holt
15th – York | The Basement
16th – Newcastle | Jazz Cafe
18th – Edinburgh | Jazz Bar
19th – Lincoln | Guild Sessions, St Mary’s
20th – Manchester | Peer Hat
21st – Torquay | Speakeasy
22nd – Barnstaple | Broomhill Arts
27th – London | Pizza Express (Soho)
By Orlando Del Maestro