With his distinctive fusion of rhythms and musical voices from the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Europe and beyond, Israeli superstar Idan Raichel rocked the packed Lisner Auditorium on Tuesday of last week. With the help of an eclectic group of musicians gleaned from his eponymous Idan Raichel Project — energetic singers Maya Avraham, Cabra Casay and Avi Wassa; Eyal Sela on flutes and clarinet, Yaakov Segal on strings including the tar, buziki and more; Marc Krakon on guitars; Joel Perpignan on percussion; Ziv Rahav on bass and acoustic guitar; and Itay Nizan on percussion — Raichel’s music took the audience on a world tour across a diverse array of cultures, as seen and heard through homegrown Israeli roots.
Raichel, his head shorn of his signature dreadlocks and saffron turban, took his favored post at the side of the stage where he played keyboard, piano and sang his popular love ballads — many drawing literary connections to biblical Hebrew poetry — and upbeat dance numbers fusing rhythms and languages from Ethiopia, west and South Africa, Brazil, Cape Verde, Morocco, the Caribbean and beyond. On this, his third visit to the Washington, D.C., region, more than 1,000 people filled Lisner on George Washington University’s campus, and by the evening’s end, young and old alike were up out of their seats, dancing, clapping and singing along to the pulsating magnetic rhythms, particularly “Brong Faya,” an Amharic number that brought the house down when a few Ethiopians from the audience were invited to the stage for a traditional shoulder-shimmying dance.
For a decade now, Raichel has been a household name and hit maker in Israel, praised for his mesmerizing blending of disparate rhythms and languages, which showcase the Jewish nation as a teeming stew of immigrants ready to share their cultural roots. In decades past, of course, Israeli-ness was the calling card of the striving Jewish nation’s musical artists, and “old country ways,” whether they were from Eastern Europe or the Arabian peninsula, were often derided. But of late, musicians have taken to exploring and returning to musical root genres that once got left behind in an effort to build and authenticate what the founding generation of Israelis felt was a new, authentic Israeli culture.
Raichel, a sabra raised in what he described as a then-idyllic village-like atmosphere of Kfar Saba, now a suburb near Tel Aviv, became enamored of the compelling musical language of the Ethiopian community when he worked with children of that community’s immigrants. And he began to add other cultural rhythms and sounds to the mix.
In recent years, Raichel has expanded his reach, drawing in singers and musicians from a multitude of locations. At Lisner, Raichel offered up popular favorites including “Mi’ma’makim (Out of the Depths),” “Im Telech (If You Go),” “Bo’ee (Come With Me)” and “Mai Nahar (River Waters),” along with selections from “Reva le Shesh (Quarter to Six),” his eponymous project’s latest release, which came out earlier this summer.
In the forefront of introducing Ethiopian and Arab singers — and their attendant cultures — to the Israeli popular music scene, Raichel has made a lasting contribution to Israeli culture and the world music scene. He’s become an ambassador without portfolio, traveling the world on an Israeli passport and introducing Israel’s democratic values and new ideals of multiculturalism to the world music scene. His group, which he calls the Idan Raichel Project, has a rotating roster of, he said, 95 collaborators, the youngest 16 and the oldest 91. What began as a fly-by-night recording studio in his parents’ basement has become a musical calling card for bringing the cultural stew of 21st century Israel to worldwide audiences, particularly when Raichel collaborates with other star artists including Alicia Keys, India.Arie and Malian guitar virtuoso Vieux Farka Toure.
Israel enjoys the cross-cultural stamp of approval Raichel puts on making Israeli music accessible beyond the nation’s borders. It’s the soft-diplomacy that has gained the Jewish state some respect beyond the 1970s ideal of hasbara or propaganda. But the real cultural diplomacy takes place in smaller settings and venues far removed from well-equipped theaters, opera houses and amphitheaters where the Idan Raichel Project traditionally enjoys much acclaim.
Earlier on Tuesday, Raichel joined two classes — teacher Lynn Talbott’s fifth-graders and Ellie Jennings’ fourth-graders — at Hendley Elementary School in the Congress Heights neighborhood of southeast Washington. Clad in his favorite oversized pocketed, baggy designer pants and a T-shirt, topped by a sedate black blazer in a nod to the sober political side of Washington, Raichel had a no-holds-barred chat with these curious 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds.
Raichel’s visit was part of the Embassy Adoption program, a joint project administered by the nonprofit Washington Performing Arts Society and the D.C. Public Schools, which matches 50 participating embassies with classrooms in 38 District elementary schools. Each embassy arranges its own programs with its assigned class, which studies that embassy’s nation during the school year, leading to a model United Nations program in the late spring.
The Israeli Embassy partnered with Hendley a few years ago and requested to return to the school, which has a significant population of underserved students. Embassy representatives will meet a half-dozen times with Ms. Talbott’s fifth-graders to introduce students to the country’s culture, geography, holidays and more. Clad in uniforms — khaki slacks and red polo shirts — they listened intently to Raichel as he introduced himself and his country. After the chat, during which Raichel played a few of his songs on music room keyboard, Raichel stated that he did not need to give the students a music lesson. “Mr. Alexander is doing a great job with the kids,” he said, complimenting Hendley’s music specialist Olyn Alexander.
Instead, Raichel pulled up a chair and sat for an ad hoc Q-and-A. He described his country and answered questions about what musical instruments his group plays, what sports and foods are popular in Israel, what was it like growing up with a dad who worked long hours, and, this being Washington, who is the president of Israel. Raichel was a natural with this group. He mentioned that he and “his lady” are expecting a baby very soon and he was very interested in hearing the different names of the students — Samara, Gary, Miracle, Tyrone were a few he called on.
And then the question arrived that made the adults, including representatives from the Israeli Embassy and the Embassy Adoption program, flinch: “Are there any wars in Israel?” Raichel, though, didn’t miss a beat, saying easily, “Yes, there are. We want to protect our country and there are two different nations who want the same land … in the end wars don’t lead to anything and we need to work toward peace.”
On his way out of the school, Raichel said he enjoyed meeting with the Hendley students. “They were very curious and very beautiful. I enjoyed sharing [information] with them.” He was quick to discount the question about war as one in a lineup of many questions about growing up and living in Israel.
The visit, he pointed out, was not about politics at all but about cultural exchange and sharing experiences, thoughts, ideas and, ultimately, the language of music. “It wasn’t about politics at all. The kids were interested in daily life and whether it is similar or different from their own.”
In the end, the language that crosses borders and political divides is the universal language of music. When Raichel played a verse from his “Bo’ee (Come With Me),” in a simple uninflected keyboard rendering, the children were mesmerized, listening to the different vocalizations of Hebrew, an unfamiliar language to all of them.
“The kind of music that I do,” Raichel explained, “is scoring the soundtrack of the place that you came from. You need to feel very connected to the place you call home.” That, along with a selection of his CDs, was the gift he left for Ms. Talbott’s fifth-graders.