The king of Israeli world beat, Idan Raichel, plays the Wisconsin Union Theater Wednesday night. With him are eight members of the chart-busting Idan Raichel Project, whose multiplatinum albums were compiled for international release last year on Cumbancha, a new spinoff label from Putumayo.
Maybe you haven't heard of Raichel, though he's toured the U.S. several times. "Not many people outside the Israeli community in the States were tuned in before, but our audiences are growing, thanks to the new CD," he says.
The Idan Raichel Project plays an Afropoppy, reggae-inflected, Middle East-tinged mix, a spunky new-generation Tel Aviv sound. Raichel's got the lushest head of dreads you'll ever see, and people sometimes mistake the 30-year-old, third-generation Ashkenazi Israeli for Ethiopian. Really, the talented keyboardist is a conduit for the music of Israel's multiethnic youth.
Raichel shouldered this role during his stint in the Israeli military, where he directed the army's rock band. Later he got a job counseling troubled Ethiopian Jewish immigrant teens. At the time, he was playing backup for Israeli pop stars. But like Jewish youth in America in an earlier era, hanging out in the jazz and blues clubs of our big cities (ask Ben Sidran about this sometime), he found himself drawn to Ethiopian nightlife in Tel Aviv.
Raichel also wanted to inspire Ethiopian teens to create from their own cultural materials, instead of giving in to globalization. "I started inviting friends to record with me, in a studio I set up in my parents' basement."
Ethiopia's just part of his current mix. "Modern Israel's a melting pot," Raichel says. "A lot of diversity takes place behind closed doors, but it's clear when you walk down the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem - different languages, restaurants, colors. The project grew so I could explore my own interests in Israel's musical heterogeneity. I direct and compose most of the songs, but mostly I see myself as a facilitator. Our efforts are ultimately collaborative."
Raichel's two Israeli albums combine over 70 collaborators. "Obviously I can't tour with 70 artists, so I picked a versatile small crew. They're all Israeli, but they come from different cultural backgrounds. On vocals we've got Cabra Casey, born to Ethiopian parents in a refugee camp in Sudan during their journey to Israel. Also singing are Sergio Braams, who grew up in Surinam but now lives in Tel Aviv, and Lital Gabai, whose parents immigrated to Israel from Iran. Shalom Mor, whose parents came from Georgia, Eurasia, plays tar, oud and guitar. Our percussionist, Rony Iwryn, grew up in Uruguay. On bass for this tour is Ziv Rahav. Finally, drummer Gilad Shmueli is my right-hand man and closest collaborator."
Vocals are at the heart of this music, Raichel says. The lyrics are mostly Hebrew, Amharic and Arabic. "But the words are all about love, which everyone can understand."