Idan Raichel makes music sans borders

Idan Raichel brings Jews, Arabs, and Africans together in a celebration of musical excellence and good times.

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      Israeli musician Idan Raichel is a born collaborator, as recent projects with Malian singer-guitarist Vieux Farka Touré and American soul diva India.Arie suggest. But when Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, enlisted the singer and keyboardist’s help on an artistic endeavour, even he was briefly flummoxed.

      “It was a very unexpected call—a very moving and exciting call from the president of Israel, who wanted me to compose music for a poem that he wrote,” Raichel reports, via cellphone from Tel Aviv. “Of course, it was a great honour, and I just put everything aside and played all night long, until I felt that I’d accomplished something. I was also very honoured to invite him to our concert at an amazing venue in Jerusalem; we sold out 3,500 seats, and he was there, and we played the song for him. It was one of our most exciting performances.”

      The song was based on Peres’s poem “The Eyes of Beta Israel”, which was a response to a number of racist incidents in Israel, mostly aimed at black Jews from Ethiopia.

      “We were all shocked, and Mr. Peres, in his very gentle way, just wrote a poem about the beauty of immigration, and about the culture of the immigrants who came from this place,” Raichel explains. “And I think this is the best lesson that you can learn from our amazing president. Despite the anger that he can feel, and the rage about the stupidity of actions of people that in 2012 are thinking in such a racist way, he’s still finding an artistic way and an educative way to write about the topic.”

      Raichel has strong leadership abilities of his own. After serving his apprenticeship with the Israel Defense Forces band, a unit he quickly came to command, he started to assemble the Idan Raichel Project, which unites Jews, Arabs, and Africans in one of the more artistically successful world-music groups going. And, appropriately enough, the band began after Raichel was exposed to Ethiopian music while working as a guidance counsellor in a school for immigrant youth.

      “They were mostly teenagers who’d immigrated from the refugee camps in Sudan, from the refugee camps in Uganda, and from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,” he says. “While facing their new identity as immigrants, they were still keeping their own roots, and I was fascinated by the music that they were playing so loud, you know: music from back home. It made me want to explore the music of this culture.”

      A strong Ethiopian flavour permeates the Idan Raichel Project’s latest Israeli single, “Closer”. A teaser for the band’s upcoming full-length, it’s a rather melancholy examination of the sunset hours, which for Raichel are a time for recharging and reflection.

      “There are people who, in a very metaphorical way, can see these hours as the beginning of the end of the day,” he says. “There are people who are taking this time for thought, before a crazy, wild night. There are people who can be very optimistic or very pessimistic about the day. So I think it’s just a song about when you are sitting close to your thoughts, close to your friend. When you can lay back and think about the miracles of the day.”

      Similar themes pervade Raichel’s as-yet-untitled new album, and if “Closer” is any indication, it’s going to be a lush, string-bedecked affair. The band he’s bringing to the Chutzpah Festival, however, is a very different matter. The stripped-down acoustic unit reflects the time Raichel spent touring with Touré, following the international success of last year’s spur-of-the-moment The Tel Aviv Session.

      “Working with Farka was like going back to the African roots of making music,” the keyboardist contends of the Touré-Raichel Collective, which sprung from a chance meeting in a Berlin airport. “We wanted to meet as friends, meet up in the rehearsal room or studio, and just play what was in our hearts, with no intention to release an album. Of course, later on, when we produced it, it turned out to be an album. But the main goal was just to meet up and play. That was the most important experience.

      “I also feel that while touring with him, while giving a lot of respect to what was going on on-stage, he was still not making a big deal about performing,” Raichel adds. “It was just a continuing of the things that he’d done during the day. We’d talk in the morning, we’d have breakfast, we’d take a walk, and then go back to the room and play. It was just one continuous movement.”

      That’s what Raichel hopes for with his current touring unit: a social encounter between musicians from different cultures that will also produce a borderless brand of musical excellence. And, he adds, some very good times.

      “It’s important to go on the road with people you just love to be with,” Raichel explains. “And these are my best friends.”

      The Idan Raichel Project plays the Vogue Theatre on February 14, as part of the Chutzpah Festival.