Listening to: Idan Raichel’s Project

Idan Raichel Project

A review of Idan Raichel’s Project’s The Idan Raichel Project (2006)

Am I dating myself (38) by talking about world music? Does anyone other than 35 plus year olds with a liberal bent still listen to world music? These days, I mostly encounter it in my artsier friends, or in people who aren’t really music listeners or buyers and for whom it validates a certain set of lifestyle choices, such as vegetarianism or organic food. Such pursuits, it seems, makes them more open to world music, which comes as part of a package deal: be vegan, use locally grown organic products, wear clothes made from hemp and shoes made from recycled car tires – and listen to music from South Africa or Bangladesh. (It’s always interesting to me to observe how people who don’t habitually listen to or buy music, listen to music. Hootie & the Blowfish sold most of their records to people like that.)

But world music, if you know where to look, is a vital, important ‘genre’ – it’s tricky to call it a genre because it’s only a genre in the context of the music industry and the perplexities of CD distribution in the developed world. Here, it’s a genre. In its place of origin, it’s just music.

Idan Raichel is an Israeli singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He’s produced two very successful ‘fusion’ style world music albums and has just released a third (2008) which I have on order and I’m hoping will arrive soon. I first encountered him through the above-referenced compilation (a concatenation of his first two albums for the international market, released in 2006).

This is interesting and lovely music that’s both entirely foreign and completely familiar at the same time. Raichel presents a smorgasbord of musics from the Jewish diaspora that’s returned ‘home’ to Israel: music from Ethiopia, music from various Arabic countries, music from Eastern Europe. It’s a linguistic hodgepodge, just as one imagines Israel to be: many songs are sung in Hewbrew, many in Amharic, some in Arabic, some in Hindi, some in yemenite Hebrew, and there are a few English passages as well.

The music itself has a strong folk song bent, underscored by solid electronics, a reggae/dancehall backbeat, and some lovely Israeli ‘europop’ sheen (but not too much, which is a good thing). You can tell that Raichel is both a consummate musician who loves to collaborate and explore what happens when you work directly with other musicians, and a dedicated studio tinkerer who can spend all day bending a sample into the right shape – so that it sounds just so.

Above all, this music is cool in the way that most Putumayo compilations sold at Whole Foods Market are not. It’s a complete artist statement, a tricky thing coming from a country where every artist statement is meaningful in ways quite outside its artistic merit. Israeli music that attempts a bridging of cultures, an integration of the differences between people, could be explosive or just plain bad, saccharine or preachy.

It’s testament to Raichel’s skill that this isn’t that. This is powerful, danceable, joyful, sad, touching and, above all, fulfilling in the same way that, say Linton Kwesi Johnson’s music was at his peak: you didn’t know where to look and listen first – great words, deep, rumbling, funky, jazzy reggae, great live show. Idan Raichel’s Project knows that music needs to work as music first and foremost, and that – if it does – integration and transcendence will be achieved as a matter of course.

If you, like me, would prefer to get the original Israeli albums rather than the ‘westernized’ compilation, you can order them from Israel Music, an online store. Mine came quickly and without fuss. Deciphering the Hebrew letters on the covers and translating them into English for ripping purposes can be done – painstakingly and using a multitude of equally hard-to-read websites. But that’s all part of the fun of discovering something truly unique.

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