Much-lauded musician Idan Raichel has a complaint. “Israel is described as one of the most interesting melting pots – and yet people sometimes don’t know much about the culture of their neighbour,” he laments.
That’s a situation the talented 36-year-old, who arrives for a concert in London next month, has tried to tackle for the past decade through his distinctive brand of collaborative music.
“You cannot solve 150 years of Palestinian and Israeli conflict with an album. But I think any movement towards that helps.” Photo: ELDAD RAFAELI.
Using Hebrew lyrics inspired by Biblical texts, Raichel fuses electronic with traditional and combines folk with the exotic sounds of West Africa, Latin America and India.
Sometimes his compositions are peppered with Arabic, Spanish, Swahili or Creole Portuguese, leaving the listener feeling this is “world” music expressed in its truest form.
The Idan Raichel Project (the musical collective that has involved more than 95 musicians from around the globe) has proved a commercial success – to date more than 500,000 albums have been sold – while Raichel’s latest album, Quarter To Six, reached double-platinum status just two months after its release.
For his London gig, Raichel says he intends to strip the songs back to the way they were originally written and perform them on a piano. A few of his Project colleagues will perform on a selection of songs.
He tells me: “It’s a nice opportunity for people who are not familiar with the project just to listen to the songs and to get to know the music I have created for the past 10 years, while for our long-standing fans it’s a nice intimate gig for them to experience the music in a different way.”
“Using just a piano means you are going more into the DNA of the music, with the core melodies and rhythms laid bare.”
Raichel, who grew up in a secular family in Kfar Saba, just outside Tel Aviv, explains he was introduced to all kinds of music as a young child. “My parents used to play vinyls through the house, all day long,” he recalls.
“My father particularly liked playing music from all over the world and that’s what I grew up listening to.”
At the age of nine, he took up the accordion, which he laughingly describes as “possibly the uncoolest instrument ever”, yet he acknowledges as “one of the most important instruments for world music, from the tango in Argentina to folk music in Israel”.
That early passion for music turned into a love for jazz during Raichel’s high school years, but the biggest turning point came during his military service. Having joined the army band and become its musical director, he toured bases performing covers of Israeli and Western hits, giving him valuable experience of producing live shows.
In the years following army service, Raichel worked as a counsellor at a boarding school for immigrants and it was there young Ethiopian Jews introduced him to Ethiopian folk and pop. “I realised I really liked these amazing singers and musicians who came from this part of the world and thought I should invite them over to my studio, just to play along and experience the music with them,” he says.
What started as informal jamming sessions eventually turned into more formal collaborations – and the Idan Raichel Project was born. From the start, Raichel, who recently shaved off his trademark dreadlocks, was keen to ensure each artist would take the spotlight.
“There would be no front man,” the turban-wearing musician explains. “I would sit at the side and watch things and see what occurs. Every song would have a different singer, we would sit in a half circle and each musician would have a chance to demonstrate what he had to offer.”
The band has toured all over the world and made stars of its collaborators, including Ethiopian singer Cabra Casey, Yeminite musician Ravid Kahalani and drummer Gilad Shmueli, while Raichel himself has earned a reputation as one of Israel’s foremost singer-songwriters and producers.
In recent years, he was personally called by Israel’s president Shimon Peres and asked to compose music for a poem he had written for Israel’s Ethiopian community. The resulting song, The Eyes of Beta Israel, was performed in front of a 3,000-strong audience at a concert in Jerusalem in 2012.
Last year, the Project performed for president Obama during his official visit to Israel, and in July Alicia Keys invited Raichel on-stage for a special duet during her sold-out concert at Nokia Stadium in Tel Aviv.
The year ended on a high when Raichel and his Austrian girlfriend celebrated the birth of their daughter Philipa Helena Damaris Raichel.
Raichel is on the up, but the hard- working musician knows there is much he would yet love to achieve – including helping towards attaining peace.
“Obviously you cannot solve 150 years of Palestinian and Israeli conflict with an album,” he says. “But I think any movement towards that helps. I would wish people from the other side of the border will listen to this music and I think it is equally important that youngsters in Israel learn about Palestinian culture, see theatre shows from Lebanon or learn about the film industry in Syria.
” This will be my contribution to educating the current and next generations. It’s very important to me and that would be my goal.”
Idan Raichel: Piano Concert & Guests is on Sunday 2 March, 8.30pm (doors open 7.30pm) at Koko, Camden High Street, London. Details: Tzemach Pro- ductions UK on 020 8201 7441/7442 or www.koko.uk.com