Is this a good time to be starting a new label and releasing CDs? No, say the pundits. The CD is dying, they say. Downloads are killing it. Brick and mortar music stores are bending the knee and weeping into their hands as the internet trips lightly past clubbing them on the backs of their heads as if they were baby harp seals. And yet, Jacob Edgar, formerly Putumayo’s vice president of A&R, has started a label.
He calls it Cumbancha, and The Idan Raichel Project is one of its debut albums. If Cumbancha’s initial releases are anything to go by then it looks as if Edgar is going to be hunting down established foreign-language musicians and packaging their music for a wider international audience, much as Putumayo did when it brought out Oliver Mtukudzi’s Tuku Music. The evidence of Idan Raichel and the upcoming Watina from Andy Palacio suggests that Edgar has an ear for good songs and a palate that must have been cultivated by his time with the other label: the musicians are culturally attuned but not wishy-washy. It looks promising. Hopefully Cumbancha will buck the trend and survive—or at least until it gets a chance to extend its partnership with Palacio’s friends at Stonetree and release their Umalali compilation, because that’s one I’ve been looking forward to.
The Idan Raichel Project is a collection of songs from the two albums that Raichel has already released through Helicon in his home country of Israel. He grew up in Kfar Saba, dabbling in music, and honed his arranging skills during a compulsory stint in the national army. He “turned his experience in the Army into a productive and positive one”, chirps his website’s biography, patting him on the back. After leaving the army he found a job helping immigrants adjust to their new home. A number of these migrants had come from Ethiopia and through them Raichel became interested in Ethiopian music.
Working in his parents’ house he began to assemble music that combined the voices of Ethiopians with Israeli pop electronica. Dozens of people (some sources say 30, others 70) helped out, providing bits of singing, instruments, and so on. Later, after the album had swooshed to the top of the Israeli charts and he was being invited to perform the music live onstage, he whittled the number of musicians in the Project down to a more manageable seven.
The Project’s first single, “Boee”, also transliterated from Hebrew as “Bo’ee”, or “Bo’i”, is the first track on Cumbancha’s compilation. It begins with an adult male voice chanting, possibly in Amharic, as sawing sounds steal in underneath him. Then the backing music picks up, it ticks and tocks, establishes a firm beat, a woman’s voice comes in, and eventually Raichel himself starts to sing. The song that follows “Boee” is the title track from the Project’s second album, Mi’Ma’amakim. It follows a similar blueprint, first the chant, then the rising backing, then Raichel’s voice. One of the strengths of this album is the way he treats these other voices, as if they were his partners in a duet. He doesn’t chop up the chant or use it as a piece of instrumentation to be deployed at will as fusionists sometimes do. Instead he supports and extends it. The backing that he provides cushions it in a tidal wash that surges back and forth. The whole effect is one of softness and unity, the two voices coming together while keeping their personalities distinct. This gives the song a spine.
The pleasing power of that tide becomes evident when one song breaks it. “Ulai Ha’Pa’am” does away with the electronic wash, replacing it with a simple acoustic guitar and a woman singing. In a different place this song would be charming. Here, it makes The Idan Raichel Project grind to a halt. The brain ticks over impatiently, waiting for it to end. It does. “Azini” takes over. The tide is restored.
When The Idan Raichel Project first arrived in my mailbox last year I was trying to think of ten albums that I could put in a list to mark the end of 2006 and I liked this one so much that I almost included it. The chants, modified by the setting, lend it a kind of middle-class ecstasy. It trembles at the edge of passion without ever taking the plunge. Eventually I replaced it in the list with a disc that had more gusto. That disappointed me. I’d heard from Idan Raichel’s Project once before, on The Rough Guide to Israel, and the song they’d chosen there was worked around a sampled cry so filled with glory that it seemed harsh, frightening, the sound of people from the Middle East on the nightly news, howling and throwing themselves across the coffins of their murdered relatives, but, in this case, joyful, a blessing.
The noise of that cry suggested religious passion, and, by extension, religious violence. No wonder it didn’t make it onto this disc. Cumbancha’s Idan Raichel Project aims for something warmer: the music of involvement. It’s a triumphant hug, bringing Ethiopian Jews from the offside of Israeli music to the forefront, doing it in a gorgeous roll of pop, hard to resist. Not a challenging album, then, but an innovative and happy one nonetheless.