Merging East and West, modern and traditional, Jewish and Muslim, pop/world music icon Idan Raichel is one of Israel’s best-known cultural exports. His Idan Raichel Project, a 2002 collaboration of some 95 musicians from diverse cultural backgrounds, was among the first and most far-reaching attempts to bring Israel’s various and often warring ethnic components together in song. After producing nine sprawling collaborative albums to date, all of them international hits, Raichel’s most recent release, “At the Edge of the Beginning” (Cumbancha) is a solo piano effort in Hebrew. He will perform excerpts from the album Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the Beacon Theater. The Jewish Week caught up with him by phone this week while he was on the road in Israel. The interview was translated from Hebrew and edited for length and clarity.
You are known as a musical ambassador of sorts: a man whose music bridges between cultures, ones that are often estranged or even hostile, both within Israel and without. Can you think of a moment in your career when you felt it — that right now, a new connection is being forged through your work?
I can think of a few. In one performance in the U.S., an ambassador of a foreign state — one with no diplomatic relations with Israel, and no chance of them in the foreseeable future — came to see me backstage. He came in an informal capacity, saying that he had heard of the Project as something that encapsulates Israel’s soundtrack, and was curious to know what that sounded like. Of course, we didn’t take pictures together and the meeting was clandestine, but we kept in touch for years later.
On the musical level, there were all kinds of collaborations — like with Ali Amr, from Ramallah, a musician that today can’t even cross over to play in Tel Aviv.
(Raichel, Palestinian singer and qanun (zither) player Amr and Alicia Keys performed Keys’ song “We Are Here” in Central Park’s 2014 Global Citizen Festival.)
Vieux Farka Touré, from Mali, Africa, faced all kinds of pressures from his country not to collaborate with an Israeli, and said, “I’m putting that all aside and playing.”
(Raichel and the famous Malian singer-guitarist recorded two albums together, “The Tel Aviv Session” and “The Paris Session.” Legend has it that their collaboration started with a chance encounter at an airport in Germany, which led to an impromptu improvised recording session in Tel Aviv.)
Have you ever faced any backlash over these types of cross-cultural collaborations?
It [the controversy] isn’t necessarily about the cross-cultural aspect — it can come from within our own community, about our own [Jewish] music. A rabbi from a charedi community in Israel approached me once and told me, “What you are doing feels very strange to me. That you take verses from the Tanach, our most important asset, slice them up and reconfigure them as a pop song, sung by a woman — I feel what you are doing is unworthy.” I found that very interesting, since a cantor from the very same charedi community told me he thought the Project was doing something beautiful … by bringing the chiloni [Israel’s non-Orthodox] or even non-Jewish audience closer to the sources.
Where does it come from, the interest in the music of other cultures — is it an anthropological curiosity?
It’s not about anthropology — what I’m interested in is people with a fierce connection to their roots. It can be someone like Bill Withers, who’s connected to the black American South, or it can be country singers or a Colombian fado singer. … There is something about a singer’s deep connection to his/her roots — regardless of what they are — that I find very moving.
To be able to incorporate such a broad range of influences takes a certain flexibility. What are you connected to? Where are your own roots?
I think that what I really connect to is folklore, or folk music. I started out as an accordion player, and I think that there is something in the DNA of all folk singers, regardless of where they come from, that is common.
The Project changed the cultural atmosphere in Israel. Can you speak to that?
I think this music could have easily been categorized as “world music,” and relegated to Reshet Bet and Kol-Israel [the more esoteric radio channels in Israel.] But the moment the mainstream broadcasters embraced it, it gave front stage to a range of voices from all [of Israel’s] tribes and cultures. It was the first time Amharic [the language of Ethiopian Jews] was heard on national radio, the first time songs in Mira Awad’s Palestinian-inflected Arabic were played on IDF radio. Suddenly, [Moroccan singer] Shimon Buskila was singing an entire song all in Moroccan, and the most Ashkenazi audiences were walking around humming “Ach Ya Mama.” It may have happened anyway, but I think the Project eased the way for many groups that came after us to continue with this type of crossover.
Your recent album, “At the Edge of the Beginning,” differs from the ones before it for being so pared down.
This album sums up two years during which I performed alone, just me and the piano. After all this time being surrounded by my second family in The Project, it took me a long time to gather the courage to sing on my own. This show has a far more intimate feel to it, both in the lyrics and in the music, like the audience is sitting in my own living room. … It tracks the ruminations of an inner voice, a more exposed one. It feels almost more like a performance by a storyteller.