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When people outside Israel think about the country, their image is generally that of a simplistic dichotomy: Jews vs. Palestinians, end of story. But the country isn’t just some cratered patch of desert on the edge of the Mediterranean it’s a cosmopolitan nation with cities as well as kibitzes. And living in those cities are people from all walks of life, and all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, from everywhere in the region and beyond.
Songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Idan Raichel was struck by the idea of showcasing some of the many voices his homeland was harboring. “I was working on demos in a studio I set up in my parent’s basement and was inviting many different singers and musicians to work with me. I was hoping to create demos that would lead to more work as a producer or songwriter, but it developed into the recordings that are the basis of the album.”
The Idan Raichel Project didn’t stay studio-bound for long, of course. “After the songs started getting airplay and there was a demand for a live show,” Raichel recalls, “I decided to invite seven musicians of various backgrounds, each an exceptional artists on their own, to participate in creating a stage show. We sit in a semi-circle on stage, I am off to the side, and each artist gets a chance to shine. I thought this embodied the collaborative spirit of the project.”
Raichel’s U.S. CD, on upstart label Cumbancha, is actually a compilation culled from two Israeli albums—2002’s self-titled debut, and last year’s Mi’Ma’amakim (Out Of The Depths). One of the tracks, the hauntingly beautiful “Bo’ee” (Come With Me), also appears on the Putumayo compilation One World, Many Cultures, a showcase for genre-blending collaborations that features Cheb Mami paired with Ziggy Marley, Taj Mahal accompanying Toumani Diabate, Alan Stivell alongside Youssou N’Dour, and many other surprising and rewarding encounters. Raichel has dreams of collaborating with performers from everywhere in the world. “I would love to work with singers from the Arab world such as Khaled, Cheb Mami, Souad Massi and Faudel,” he says. “I’d also love to work with West African artists such as Salif Keita, Youssou N’Dour, Oumou Sangare, and especially Tinariwen, who I met when we both played at WOMAD in Singapore. I think they are great.”
The power of Raichel’s music lies in its combination of ancient and modern, reminiscent of Moby’s looping of crackly blues and gospel 78s on his album Play. Traditional instruments are heard alongside guitars and electronics, and some of the voices, singing in ancient languages, are live, but others are sampled. Raichel manipulates the sounds, adding echo and reverb and synthetic rhythms occasionally reminiscent of hip-hop, but with the desolation of a desert post-sandstorm.
“Bo’ee” is entirely electronic, with vocals by Yair Ziv and Shiran Cohen floating amid the artificial sounds, perfectly demonstrating Raichel’s self-effacing production style. “I always start a song with the vocals,” he says, “and I let the melody and the rendition of the song guide how the rest of the song develops. Then I just add what the singer needs to support him or her. If he needs only an acoustic guitar then we give him that. If he needs something more electronic to contrast with what he is doing then we add that.” The vocals on “Brong Faya” are particularly startling, fed through static and hiss to create a feel not unlike late-’90s productions by dubwise UK dance artists Leftfield.
Raichel’s been making music almost his entire life. “I started playing the accordion as a child,” he recalls, “and I was exposed to all kinds of different music, everyth