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The Idan Raichel Project burst onto the Israeli music scene in 2002, changing the face of Israeli popular music and offering a message of love and tolerance that resonated strongly in a region of the world where the headlines are too often dominated by conflict. With an enchanting blend of Ethiopian and Middle Eastern flavors coupled with sophisticated production techniques and a spectacular live show, the Idan Raichel Project has become one of the most unexpected success stories in Israeli music today. While he regularly fills large concert halls at home, the upcoming international release of his recordings on the Cumbancha record label promises to introduce the work of this inspirational collective to a wide global audience.
Idan Raichel, the architect of this unique recording project, is a 29-year old keyboardist, producer and composer from Kfar Saba. Idan was born in 1977 to a family with Eastern European roots, and although music was an important part of his upbringing, his parents did not place much emphasis on performing music from his particular cultural background. “I think the fact that I didn’t have strong family musical roots is what made me be very open to music from all over the world,” says Idan. Idan started playing the accordion when he was 9 years old, and even at this young age was attracted to the exotic sounds of Gypsy music and tango.
As a teenager, Idan started playing keyboards, and studied jazz in high school, which honed his skills at improvisation and working with other musicians. In Israel, military service is mandatory for all young men and women, so at 18 Idan was conscripted into the Israeli army. Ironically, it was in this military setting that Idan developed musical skills that would prove essential later in life. Rather then heading to the front lines in this volatile region, Idan joined the Army rock band and toured military bases performing covers of Israeli and European pop hits. As the musical director of the group, he became adept at arrangements and producing live shows, and turned his experience in the Army into a productive and positive one.
After he was discharged Idan starting working as a counselor at a boarding school for immigrants and troubled youth. Notably, the school was filled with young people from Ethiopia who were part of Israel’s growing community of Ethiopian Jews. It was here that Idan first started getting familiar with Ethiopian folk and pop music. While most of the young people in the school rejected their own cultural traditions in an effort to assimilate into mainstream Israeli society, a small core of Ethiopian teenagers remained fans of Ethiopian music. They passed around cassettes of songs from artists like Mahmoud Ahmed, Aster Aweke, Gigi and others, and the exotic, otherworldly melodies piqued Idan’s curiosity. “I started to hear lots of cassettes from Addis Ababa. Village music, like Ethiopian pop and reggae, or the native village songs,” says Raichel. “I noticed that immigrants from the Ethiopian community changed their names when they got to Israel. They try to assimilate into Western culture and don’t keep their roots.” He wanted these kids to “remember that they like hip-hop but they are not from Harlem, they like reggae but they are not Bob Marley. The Ethiopians have a great culture that should be cherished.”
Idan started going to Ethiopian bars and clubs in downtown Tel Aviv. It was like entering another world, a country within a country that remains a secret from most Israelis. As his connections to the community deepened, Idan began attending Ethiopian synagogues, weddings and other ceremonies, and he began to learn more about Ethiopian music and culture.
Meanwhile, Idan had become a successful backup musician and recording session player for some of Israel’s most popular singers. After a few years of helping others gain success and notoriety, Idan decided it was time to pursue a project that reflected his musical ideals, and he began working on a demo recording in a small studio he set up in the basement of his parent’s home in Kfar Saba. He thought it would be a good idea to invite a number of different singers and musicians to participate, in order to better demonstrate his different styles and the ways in which he worked with a variety of artists.
Idan had long been fascinated with the diversity of Israel and sought to celebrate his appreciation and respect for different cultures through his music. Because of its open door to immigrants from Jewish communities around the globe, Israel is home to a stew of cultures and traditions, including people of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Latin American and Eastern European roots. Yemenite Jews offer traditions that reflect thousands of years of living in the country of Yemen on the southern edges of the Arabian Peninsula. Israel’s Sephardic community consists of people who had incorporated the traditions of Spain, North Africa and the Mediterranean region where they had lived for centuries. The largest immigrant population in Israel consists of Ashkenazi Jews, who had come mostly from Russia and Eastern Europe (Idan’s is himself of Eastern European descent). More recently, over 85,000 Ethiopian Jews now call Israel home after efforts to naturalize this so-called “lost tribe of Israel” through dramatic airlifts in the 1980s and 90s. In addition, there is a large Arab community, which makes up almost 20% of the official total population of Israel.
Idan invited over 70 of his friends and colleagues from Israel’s diverse music scene to participate in his recordings. He never expected his musical experiments to turn him into Israel’s biggest musical phenomenon in recent memory. Idan created the core songs of his first album as a demo, and began shopping for a record label to help him produce a full album of his own. While most of the Israeli labels considered his work too “ethnic” and too outside of the norms of the formulaic Israeli pop scene to have any hope of success, one A&R man, Gadi Gidor at Helicon Records, instantly heard the potential in Idan’s work and quickly signed him on to the roster. The subsequent album was an immediate hit. The haunting Ethiopian chorus of the first single, “Bo’ee” (Come With Me), sounded completely unlike anything most Israeli’s had heard before. Yet, coupled with Idan’s richly poetic lyrics of love and devotion and sophisticated contemporary production techniques, the single struck a chord with a wide swath of the Israeli public.
As the interest in the recording began to grow, demand for live shows increased, including an offer Idan couldn’t refuse from the prestigious Opera House of Tel Aviv. Given the number of musicians who participated in the recordings, it would have been impossible to have them all appear on stage, so Idan decided to pick seven members in addition to himself who were both versatile and strong individual artists in their own right.
From the beginning, Idan saw the project as a collaboration between artists who each bring their own musical culture and talents to the stage. “There would be no front man,” Idan says. “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 they have to offer.” The live show became symbolic of the album, as it brought together a group of people of different backgrounds but each is equal to the other.
This sentiment is reflected in the decision to name the collective The Idan Raichel Project. Says Raichel, “If I had called the album just ‘Idan Raichel,’ people would have thought that Raichel is the main voice on all the songs. I wrote the songs and I arranged and produced them, but I perform them together with other vocalists and musicians. On the other hand, we are not a group. It’s something in between."
In its recordings or on stage, The Idan Raichel Project has featured a fascinating array of participants. Cabra Casey is a singer of Ethiopian heritage who was born in a refugee camp in Sudan during her parent’s journey to Israel. She grew up in a diverse immigrant community in Southern Israel, and met Idan when they were both serving in the Israeli Army. Mira Anwar Awad, who sings on the dramatic Arabic-language track “Azini,” is an Arab Israeli who grew up in the northern city of Haifa. A well-known singer and actress, Awad had participated in numerous musicals and theatrical productions in Israel.
Sergio Braams, who sings on the dancehall inflected track “Brong Faya” (Burn Fire) among others, immigrated to Israel from the country of Suriname on the Caribbean coast of South America. Braams has infused the spirit of Caribbean music into the Tel Aviv scene, and was the leader of a reggae band for which Idan played keyboards. Braams is a cofounder of and performer in the popular musical review called Mayumana, the Israeli equivalent of the percussion show Stomp.
While The Project has featured many young artists who represent the cutting-edge of popular Israeli music, Idan has also invited a number of elder statesmen who bridge the generational gap and demonstrate the timelessness of the Project’s music. Shoshanna Damari was an Israeli singer of Yemenite heritage who had been one of Israel’s most beloved singers for decades. Damari passed away in 2006 at the age of 83, after making her last recordings as part of the Idan Raichel Project and participating in a number of live concerts with the collective.
Hailing from a Yemenite community that has staunchly maintained their traditional way of life, 76-year old Yihia Tsubara sings on “Im Tachpetza” (If Thou Wisheth) along with his son Shalom Tsuberi. The appearance was unique because not only did these firm guardians of ancient tradition allow their music to be blended with modern electronic beats and mixes, they even agreed to perform new Westernized versions of lyrics from the Diwan, the traditional Yemenite prayer book.
The last track on The Idan Raichel Project features South African singer Bongani Xulu, who happened to see The Idan Raichel Project perform during a trip to Israel. He came up to Idan after the show and expressed how much he loved the performance, and Idan invited him to participate on the moving anthem “Siyaishaya Ingoma” (Sing Out For Love). The song symbolizes the global reach and relevance of The Project's underlying message.
Idan’s right hand man and closest collaborator on The Project is drummer and producer Gilad Shmueli. Himself a respected producer of many popular Israeli artists, Shmueli has played an essential role in the development of The Project since the beginning.
The groundswell of interest propelled the album to sell over 150,000 copies (triple platinum) and firmly establish Idan as a new type of Israeli pop star. His follow-up album in 2005 featured a number of hit songs, including the Ethiopian flavored “Mi’Ma’amakim” (Out Of The Depths), and proved that Idan was a unique talent that offered a new vision for how Israelis, their neighbors in this volatile region, and people all over the world, can cherish their own cultural traditions, celebrate their differences and through respectful collaboration create new and inspiring expressions.
Members of the Jewish, Ethiopian and Israeli communities around the world have known about the Idan Raichel Project for a number of years now, and he regularly sells out concerts in large performance venues in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. In November 2005, for example, the Idan Raichel Project headlined at the renowned Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, the same venue from which the Oscars are televised. The Project also gave two well-received shows at the famed Apollo Theater in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood. While in New York, Idan and members of The Project visited a number of schools and churches in Harlem as one of many regular bridge-building efforts the group has undertaken.
In January, 2006, The Idan Raichel Project traveled to Ethiopia, the land that had inspired so much of its music. Two of the lead singers of the Project came to Israel as children during the migration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the 1980s. The trip marked the first time they had returned to the land of their birth, and it was also the first time an Israeli artist had performed in Ethiopia. The band was happy to learn that their songs “Bo'ee” and “Mi’Ma’amakim” had earned a fair share of radio airplay locally. The Idan Raichel Project opened the Fifth Ethiopian Music Festival in Addis Ababa, sharing the stage with top Ethiopian performers, including the legendary Mahmoud Ahmed. The story of the Project’s emotional trip to Israel was filmed for a forthcoming documentary which will be released in early 2007.
In the fall of 2006, the work of The Idan Raichel Project will be released outside of Israel for the first time on the new record label, Cumbancha. Founded by Jacob Edgar, the longtime head of A&R and music research at Putumayo World Music, Cumbancha seeks to present exceptional artists from around the globe whose work merits attention by a wider public.
The Idan Raichel Project, a compendium of the most notable songs from the Project’s two Israeli albums, will be released on November 7th, 2006 in conjunction with a special Putumayo World Music collection featuring Idan Raichel entitled One World, Many Cultures. The Putumayo album focuses on cross-cultural musical collaborations and also features appearances by Willie Nelson, Ziggy Marley, Youssou N’Dour and many others. A portion of the proceeds for One World, Many Cultures will go to support the nonprofit organization Search For Common Ground (www.sfcg.org), which works to transform the way the world deals with conflict - away from adversarial approaches and towards collaborative problem solving.
The international release of The Idan Raichel Project promises to bring even more renown to this inspirational recording project. Along with the release, The Idan Raichel Project plans to embark on a significant international tour that will bring them back to the United States, Europe and elsewhere to present their powerful and entertaining musical message to new audiences throughout the globe.
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