The roots of Idan Raichel’s music go deep and far: thousands of years back to biblical verses and into every corner of an Israeli society that burbles with different cultures - Yemeni, Moroccan, European, Arabic. They go deepest into Ethiopian culture, the most hidden and recent group of Israeli immigrants.
To everyone’s surprise, Raichel included, this communally made music with ancient words and ancient rhythms has made him a modern pop phenomenon in an often divided country, one of the most popular artists in Israel and one who is increasingly visible outside it. He is touring tp support “The Idan Raichel Project,” his first CD to be released in the United States.
“I just did music with my friends,” said the 29-year-old Raichel from his home in Tel Aviv recently. “I wasn’t doing music with an Ethiopian singer, I’m doing music with my friend who by chance he’s coming from Ethiopia. Another singer is a friend from the Persian community and the drummer is Iraqi and the percussionist is from Uruguay.
“I would define it as music of the streets, because there are like 70 artists from all over, from the age of 16 to 84. Anyone in the street can find something from his background.”
And almost everyone has. Raichel’s first album, produced in his parents’ basement and released in 2002, became an instant and surprise hit.
The lush melodies, the layers of rhythms and sounds, the Ethiopian music so new to Israeli ears, the emotionally packed voices of Ethiopian and Yemeni singers, the spiritual lyrics based on biblical and other ancient texts, Raichel’s sophisticated production, the sense of openness and community, struck a vibrant chord in Israel.
“What I love about Idan’s music is the way he fuses different cultures and sounds into something very unique and beautiful,” Arieh Shani, 59, an Israeli college professor, writes in an e-mail.
“I think he became so popular because his music sounds very different from anything else, but in it is a traditional feel that comes from the roots of the culture. It is music that speaks to everybody.”
“His audience is very diverse,” 29-year-old Anat Milo, an Israeli graduate student also writes in an e-mail. “It starts with the young people who went backpacking in the Far East or South America, continues through soldiers listening to the army radio, and does not really end. Even my grandmother likes to hum his tunes.”
Of Eastern European extraction, Raichel got his first professional musical experience during his mandatory military service, as musical director of a pop/rock cover band that played military bases. On finishing, he worked as a producer and songwriter.
But it was a job counseling teens at a boarding school for immigrant youth - many of them Ethiopian, most without their parents - that sent him on his musical odyssey. He was fascinated by tapes of traditional Ethiopian music that some of the children played, music that to him sounded much richer than the hip-hop or reggae that the kids were eager to adopt as they tried to assimilate.
“I found that Ethiopian culture is an amazing culture,” Raichel says. “Even if I didn’t think it’s amazing, I would have told them just to keep their own roots, language, ceremonies. The music is amazing, the traditional ceremonies are amazing.”
About 85,000 Ethiopians live in Israel, many having arrived via refugee airlifts in the 1980s and `90s. Some passed through refugee camps: one of the Idan Raichel Project’s singers, Cabra Casey, was born in a camp in Sudan, a stop in her Ethiopian parents’ trek to Israel. Although Jewish, the new arrivals’ skin color and their ancient and very different version of Jewish culture has kept them largely separate within Israeli society.
Raichel, fascinated by the music, delved into that largely hidden society, going to synagogues, weddings and other ceremonies. “Although they are closed inside their own community, they are very, very welcoming,” he said.
Although primarily a songwriter, arranger and producer, Raichel sings on only two tracks on the CD. Seventy musicians contributed, jamming in Raichel’s parents’ basement, and the project continues to include artists of all ages and cultures.
Among them are Sergio Braams, from Suriname in South America, who led a reggae band where Raichel played keyboards; 76-year-old Yihia Tsubara and his son Shalom Tsuberi, who are from a traditional Yemenite community; and a South African singer, Bongani Xulu, who saw the group in concert and asked to participate. The project tours with just eight artists, with roots in Ethiopia, Sudan, Uruguay and Iran, as well as Israel.
Dubi Lenz, a cultural reporter on IDF Radio, a national network, hosts a weekly world music show and produces Israel’s largest world music festival. He says that Raichel’s music is a kind of soundtrack for a new Israeli identity.
“His first CD was something very fresh and - it was a need in Israel,” Lenz says while visiting New York. “Israel is a country of immigration. We have been asked all the time - we ask ourselves all the time - what is Israeli music? I think Israeli music is really this melting pot, all these traditions side by side, each one putting in his herbs and ingredients to make a stew that is something else.”
Lenz says Raichel has generous motives. “He’s very humble onstage, he’s on the side playing keyboards,” he says. “He gives people the opportunity to express themselves much more than he expresses himself.
“He is also very, very curious. He’s always consuming new rhythms and instruments, dreaming of how he can put something together.”
Although he started thinking mostly of how to discover and blend different musical traditions, the success of the project has made Raichel conscious of the possibilities it offers to build bridges not just in Israel, but around the world.
Last year the group performed in Ethiopia, the first time that two of its Ethiopian singers had returned to the land of their birth. In 2005 they performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, also speaking at area schools.
“We started to see that we have this small melting pot on stage and we can represent Israel as a multicultural nation,” Raichel says. “We are happy that we can also help with PR work for Israel, so people can see different sides, not only the political issues that are presented on CNN.”
Despite conflicts in his own country and the region around him, Raichel says he still believes that music like his can help.
“Every time in Israel there is a new immigration it changes the face of society,” he says. “It takes some time to get the right mix to understand the differences. It’s still being done. I think music can help people come together. At the end of the day it’s about love and respect that people want to feel.”