PREORDER: El Khat – mute




Release date: 13/09/2024

“El Khat make joyful clatter…everything is recycled metal, plastic or wood, all coming together in a funereal march that sounds like a huge, disgruntled anima shaking itself into life.” — The Financial Times

El Khat’s 3rd album mute belies its title as it careens out of the speakers with a raucous intensity. Formed in the garages and warehouses of Jaffa and now based in Berlin, the group’s ever-expanding vision makes a defiant stand against complacency, conflict and division. Skittering drums and brass, a jagged organ, hypnotic Yemeni melodies and one-of-a-kind DIY percussion and string instruments, all meld together in an infectious, heady soundscape.

Sometimes wildly raw, sometimes lush and enveloping. Always uncompromised and adventurous.

Mute. As a noun it means refraining from speech; a device placed over the bridge of a stringed instrument; or something that temporarily turns off sound. As a verb, to mute is to deaden, muffle, or soften sound. Muting is the opposite of openness and communication and for Eyal el Wahab, the man behind El Khat, it’s a vital word, one which he’s chosen very carefully for the title of the band’s third album.

“Every distance between two people is an opportunity for conflict. Two of anything creates sides and sides create conflict. In such cases there will be muting,” el Wahab explains.

Mute is an album that explores distance, speech – and the lack of it. It’s a series of musings on people, places – and leaving.

The record began life with the core of El Khat – multi-instrumentalist el Wahab, percussionist Lotan Yaish and organist Yefet Hasan – recording in an isolated village underground shelter. “My state of mind at the time affected the compositions even before I wrote the music,” el Wahab notes, “and the isolated location gave us a chance to make sense of that.” Following those sessions, in the summer of 2023 the group emigrated to Berlin; a far cry from Jaffa, where they’d largely grown up. The move was an expression of the nomadic urge that has been a constant in el Wahab’s life, one that flows directly into his work.

“These songs are about emigrating, leaving someone or somewhere. I don’t think I’ve stayed in any one place for more than a year. For us Arab Jews whose families were forced to leave Yemen, it really began with that big move and our families’ arrival in Israel, a land with a constant muting of the ‘other’.”

Mute, he feels, is “a big and meaningful record.” It’s a story of endings and new beginnings. “But that’s true of all our albums” el Wahab insists. “They’re about relationships and the struggle to see two sides as a whole and not something that ends with muting and conflict. The songs here are about old loves, country, family. They are about feelings and identity.” And all of that inevitably brings up many questions. As he sings on “La Wala”: “Why can’t you never enjoy the moment you’re in/ And always says goodbye/ Why? Why?”

El Wahab keeps reinventing himself: even his career has been an act self-invention. Unable to read music, he still managed to talk his way into the Andalusian Orchestra, playing cello by ear until he learned music theory. And instruments he uses on his albums, like the blue gallon (actually a jug) or the kubana (named after a type of Yemeni bread) are also self-invented. These handmade, one-of-a-kind instruments sit at the heart of mute. He’s always made music from the items others discard. Everything recycled and reused, nothing wasted.

This same minimalist spirit echoes in El Khat’s melodies. They are unadorned and direct, inspired by the Yemeni traditional music that el Wahab heard in recordings from the 1960s. At times the songs are very close to the broad appeal of pop music, as with mute’s surging, powerful opening track and first single, “Tislami Tislami,” where the tune sweeps up the listener. But, he notes, while it might have the structure of pop, it is created “with more focus on character. Mute really feels like a continuation of what we did on our last album, Aalbat Alawi Op.99. It’s like the B-side, more pages in the chapter.”

But that doesn’t mean the album is without surprises, like the curiously off-kilter rhythm of “Commodore Lothan” and its jaggedly seductive organ line. “The song is a joke, really,” el Wahab laughs. “Basically, it’s about us the band and our drummer Lotan Yaish. He’s Commander Lothan, that’s a nickname we have for him.” It’s a light moment among the questions and sorrows that ache through other songs. Lines like “Forgiveness, forgiveness will create less mistakes/Between us” (“Zafa”), or “Someone now is on a quest for a new/ground” (“Intissar”) tell their tales of searching and doubt.

“Doubt is great,” el Wahab says. “It saves me. A lot of people easily determine between good and bad but I believe they are linked together depending from which angle you are looking. That’s what I’ve been dealing with in my writing: opening up to both sides. Listening, being completely aware, without labelling, without muting.” That sense of openness permeates the songs. The album can be ghostly, like the brief percussive interlude “Tabl Yamani” or the refracted quarter-tones of “Almania.” It can also be insistent and headlong, as heard in the brass-driven rush of “Zafa: Talaatam” and the pulsing melodicism of “Ward.”

Mute is an infectious heady mixture, sometimes wildly raw, sometimes lush and enveloping. Always uncompromised and adventurous.

“You’re dealing with the past even while you’re looking to the future” el Wahab says “and it’s not quite real. Only the present moment is real.” In terms of the “present moment” in Western Asia, he adds, “we Arab Jews of Yemeni origin condemn the war in Gaza. The war is a mute, the actions of leaders are a mute, dividing Islam and Judaism or any other religion is a mute. Judging people based on their skin colour, where they were born, or ethnicity is a mute.”

“I cannot even share my feelings with my friends and family anymore” he continues. “People only see themselves instead of the entire picture, that ‘whole’ where we all complete each other and cannot be separated as if we were different parts of a human body.”

Mute captures those present moments and the questions El Khat are asking. And that, Eyal el Wahab insists, is exactly the point. “I want to ask. I don’t need to get an answer.”