The Idan Raichel Project

Songs of Love and Tolerance from Israel's Melting Pot

The Idan Raichel Project is a musical collective that incorporates the sounds and influences of the many cultures and traditions that make up the fabric of Israeli society – Ethiopian, Yemenite, Arab, Latin American, Eastern and Western European, just to name a few. Marianna Evenstein spent an afternoon with Idan Raichel and some of his musicians in Berlin, where they recently performed

Idan Raichel
Idan Raichel, founder of The Idan Raichel Project

​​Keyboardist, composer and producer Idan Raichel has always been fascinated by what he calls Israel's "beautiful melting pot". While working as a counsellor for troubled immigrant youth in Tel Aviv, Raichel first encountered traditional and pop music from Ethiopia, which immediately intrigued him. In 2002, Raichel set up a small studio in the basement of his parents' house and began composing and recording songs together with musicians from different ethnic backgrounds and traditions.

In addition to Ethiopian artists, these included a Yemeni singer, a reggae keyboardist from Suriname and a young Palestinian vocalist. The music they created weaved Ethiopian folk melodies in Amharic, Arabic poetry, Yemenite chants, Biblical psalms and Caribbean rhythms together with contemporary production techniques.

Unexpected success

The Idan Raichel Project's first album became one of the most unexpected success stories in Israeli pop music. Since then, the collective has toured the world, bringing its unique sound to enthusiastic audiences everywhere – even becoming the first Israeli act ever to perform in Ethiopia.

When the Project took the stage recently in Berlin, it was as a much smaller, more intimate group than in previous tours. "Before the upcoming third album, it was important to me to do something different," says Idan Raichel. "So I'm playing an all-acoustic set for the first time with some of my old friends, and some new ones," he explains.

Yemenite flavour and intensity

The Idan Raichel Project live on stage (photo: Kikar-Israel)
The Idan Raichel Project plays a highly original and exotic music with universal appeal; melancholy at times, exuberant at others and incredibly difficult to pinpoint – perhaps not unlike Israel itself

​​The friends who joined Raichel on this particular tour included percussion player Itamar Doari, who first played with the group when he was 17; Eyal Sela, a woodwind player renowned in the world music scene; Cabra Casay, a singer of Ethiopian heritage who was born in a refugee camp in Sudan during her parent's journey to Israel; Maya Avraham, an Israeli singer with a haunting and melodic voice; and singer Ravid Kahalani who added Yemenite flavour and intensity to the mix.

Over the years, Idan Raichel's musical collective has featured 70 artists from all over the world, and of all ages. "What's beautiful is that the youngest (musician) in the Project was 16 years old, the oldest was 83," says Raichel. "Some are new immigrants, and some have been in Israel for seven generations, while others are non-Israelis. We have people with right wing views and others who are extremely left wing," he continues.

Transcending political differences

With such disparate backgrounds and perspectives, one might expect that there would be ideological or other conflicts – after all, the group is based in the Middle East. But Raichel is quick to emphasize that politics is not a central focus for him or the musicians he works with – what's important is their art and how it brings people together.

"It's a musical project. We don't deal with politics," says Raichel. "We may agree or disagree on various things, but we don't make a big deal about it." Through their harmonious musical collaboration, Raichel and the members of his Project prove that the art they create can transcend any political or other differences they may have.

The musicians admit that they do get asked about their political views, about Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, or about Israeli government policy. "When people hear we're a musical group from Israel, of course the first thing many of them think of is politics," says singer Cabra Casay. "But," she continues, "as soon as they see us on stage they totally forget about all that, and that's the greatest thing about music – you get to connect with people through music. And then afterwards people may even change their minds because they learned something about Israel they didn't know – like the fact that there is a black Jewish community, or Yemenites, or people from Argentina."

"There is so much more to Israel than politics"

The Idan Raichel Project (photo: www.idanraichelproject.com)
The Project has already achieved tremendous success in Israel and beyond, offering a message of unity and respect for diversity that is all the more meaningful in a region too often dominated by conflict

​​"People don't necessarily want to hear about politics on a daily basis," believes vocalist Maya Avraham. "They want to fall in love, they want a break," she says. Ravid Kahalani, the third singer performing with the group in Berlin, also prefers to focus on creative expression and its positive effects. "There is so much more to Israel than politics. I do my thing, I make my art and hope it will bring happiness to people, that's what I do," he says.

While Idan Raichel did not originally intend his Project to have any particular mission, he acknowledges that there have been many positive "side effects". For one thing, it has given Ethiopian, Yemeni and other world music exposure in the mainstream music scene. And through live performances around the world, the group has given many audiences an insight into Israel's multicultural diversity. "I think this project can do lots of things," says Raichel. "It can be a bridge across many groups of cultures."

Marianna Evenstein

© Qantara.de 2008

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