Idan Raichel makes a triumphant return to Vancouver

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Chutzpah!PLUS presentation. At the Vogue Theatre on Monday, May 12

Midway through his triumphant return to Vancouver, Idan Raichel gave his band a breather and addressed the audience directly. After noting that he was happy and that when he’s happy he likes to talk, he observed that his fellow Israelis think he plays Israeli music, while abroad he’s seen as a world-music performer.

This doesn’t faze him in the least. Makers of world music, he added, are simply “bringing the soundtrack of the places they are coming from” to the rest of the globe.

That’s as good a definition of the often contentious genre as is possible—and a fine explanation of Raichel’s intent as a touring musician.

So what does Israel sound like these days? Well, it still has echoes of the ancient world: during a song that, judging by the projected visuals, was about Jerusalem and the three monotheistic religions that city has given birth to, woodwind god Eyal Sela blew a few resounding blasts on the shofar, a ram’s horn trumpet used in Jewish ritual.

The notion that Jews must find a way to coexist with Muslims was reinforced by stringed instrument virtuoso Yaakov Segal’s use of the Turkish saz (here a sleek, amplified version), the Iranian tar, and what I think was a Tunisian mandole.

And that Israel is also part of Mediterranean culture was made clear through melodies that would be just as much at home in the port cities of Marseille and Palermo as in the dockside cafés of Haifa.

Mostly, though, Raichel depicts Israel as urban and urbane: boasting as many discos as shuls, aware of international trends in pop music, and always up for a good time.

It’s also important to remember that at home the intense singer and pianist plays soccer stadiums, while both he and his long-time drummer and coproducer, Gilad Shmueli, are veteran studio musicians who’ve helped build dozens of hits. They’re seeking self-expression, but they also want to please.

What was on view at the Chutzpah! Festival-presented performance at the Vogue was essentially an arena-size show crammed into a small room. Entertaining to the point of being overwhelming, it incorporated everything from funk workouts rowdy enough to reanimate Detroit to piano ballads so weepy they’d make Billy Joel wince.

For those of us who last saw Raichel in an intimate and largely improvised collaboration with Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, the glossiness of it all was shocking. His willingness to share the spotlight, though, remains unchanged. In addition to his excellent band, which also included a low-key electric guitarist, an inventive percussionist, and a bassist whose rock-solid supporting lines were textbook perfect, he shared the stage with three singers, two of whom could have headlined on their own.

Maya Avraham is a siren in every respect, with a sinuous, penetrating voice, supreme physical confidence, and an impressive repertoire of belly-dance moves. Cabra Casay proved only marginally more restrained and sounded fantastic whether she was singing in her native Ethiopian style or tackling a moody Portuguese song from Cape Verde. Their male counterpart, Avi Wassa, was less compelling, but then he has the misfortune of having to replace Ravid Kahalani, an electrifying frontman who’s gone on to global success with his own Yemen Blues project. It’s not an enviable gig—other than that he gets to share the stage with Avraham and Casay.

In his mid-set pause, Raichel mentioned that some of the “world music” singers he most admires include Jamaican icon Bob Marley, French chanteuse Edith Piaf, and Argentine activist Mercedes Sosa. For now, he’s still aspiring to their status—but he’s doing similar work in a similarly attractive way.

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