The Idan Raichel Project is unlike anything you have ever heard before and in some ways like everything you have ever heard before — but at once. It is the story of the Diaspora, of the modern day and of the ages in sound
Please tell us a little about your own personal background…
I was born and raised in Kfar Saba, a small city near Tel Aviv. My parents were born in Israel, and their parents were originally from Eastern Europe. I started playing the accordion as a child, and I was exposed to all kinds of different music, everything from Gypsy music to Argentinean tango, French waltzes, Israeli folk whatever.
“I think people in Israel could see themselves in the music because it had so many different cultural elements in it. Also, the Ethiopian sound was very unique and unexposed and I think Israelis were excited to discover this aspect of their heritage.”
It taught me to keep my ears open to different sounds. I listened to a lot of different music growing up, from Miles Davis to Oum Kalthoum. I studied jazz in high school. I became interested in Ethiopian music when I was counseling some Ethiopian kids and started listening to Mahmoud Ahmed, Aster Aweke, Gigi and others. I also find a lot of inspiration in classic Israeli folk and popular music. I had been performing for a number of years as a backup musician for some popular Israeli artists and I decided to create my own demos in the hope of finding work as a producer and a solo artist. These demos form the original tracks of the Idan Raichel Project, which involved about 70 different musicians from many different backgrounds.
http://flyvideo.ning.com/flvplayer/flvplayer.swf What were your first experiences of music and which ones made you pursue music further?
My family did not focus on a particular music tradition when I was growing up, so I was exposed to a lot of different styles of music as a child. When I got to high school and started playing in ensembles with different musicians I enjoyed the process of working with others.
Actually, some of my formative musical experiences came when I was in the Israeli Army, playing for the Army band. In Israel, military service is obligatory for anyone over the age of 18, but I wasn’t a soldier on the front lines or anything like that. My military service consisted of directing the Army rock band, which actually gave me a lot of experience as a musical director.
It was after I left the Army and started working as a counsellor with immigrant teenagers in a boarding school that I first discovered Ethiopian music, and that provided a whole new musical direction for me. I’ve always been a musical explorer and like to bring together different musical traditions and expressions.
How did you go about assembling so many different musicians and traditions into your music?
“We have a lot of musical resources to draw from in Israel because it is such a diverse society with immigrants and residents from many different cultural backgrounds, so if we felt we needed a particular sound we could usually find someone nearby who could help provide what we were looking for.”
It is really an organic process, and each song has a different story to tell. Once I have composed a song, I start recording the singer, and I build the arrangement around their particular interpretation of the song. I always start a song with the vocals 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.
I often get inspired by different recordings of traditional Ethiopian or Middle Eastern music, which make their way into my songs. I know many different musicians in Israel, from many different walks of life, and one of the joys of the Project is that I get to work with so many of them. I try to use the arrangement to enhance and take advantage of the special flavour that they bring to the recording.
Arranging the music must have been incredibly difficult, how did you set about doing it?
I just follow my instincts and let the melody and interpretation guide me. It is a collaborative process. The recordings were made in the basement of my parents’ house, where I set up a recording studio and invited people to come, have tea, and record in a relaxed and intimate environment. I basically lived in that studio while I was working on the recordings. Many of the singers who appear on the project are not professional musicians, some come from very traditional backgrounds, and the natural setting allowed them to open up and enjoy themselves during the process.
We have a lot of musical resources to draw from in Israel because it is such a diverse society with immigrants and residents from many different cultural backgrounds, so if we felt we needed a particular sound we could usually find someone nearby who could help provide what we were looking for.
Your music has been wildly popular in Israel. What reaction were you expecting and what actually happened?
“Each of the 70 musicians have different opinions about the situation in Israel and the Middle East, and if you put us all in a room you might get a very heated conversation. But when we are in the studio those things fall to the wayside.”
I originally produced a few tracks as demos in the hopes of finding work as a producer, and I shopped it around to all of the Israeli labels with very few expectations.
My music is pretty eclectic in comparison to a lot of Israeli pop, so I was very happy when the public reacted favourably to it. It happened right away, from the moment the song ‘Bo’ee’ (Come With Me) was played on the radio the momentum has been building. I think people in Israel could see themselves in the music because it had so many different cultural elements in it. Also, the Ethiopian sound was very unique and unexposed and I think Israelis were excited to discover this aspect of their heritage.
The message in your music — that you put into practice — is one of mutual respect and appreciation of difference. Is this a hopeless cause in your part of the Middle East?
Nothing is hopeless and I am very optimistic that eventually we will learn to live together in harmony and understanding. The Project is a part of this process. Each of the 70 musicians who participated in the project have different opinions about the situation in Israel and the Middle East, and if you put us all in a room and asked us to discuss it, you might get a very heated conversation. But when we are in the studio, making music together, those things fall to the wayside and we begin to learn that we are all people with similar desires, goals and dreams. We all wish to live in peace and enjoy the basics of life. Hopefully, through working together and getting to know each other better on a personal level we can make steps towards a better situation.
What do you think music and musicians can do in such circumstances and what are the limits?
“One of the other artists, who was from Lebanon, originally refused to participate in the festival when he heard an Israeli band was playing there…”
I’ve always said that the Project is about the music and is not about politics, but of course, it has a message with political connotations.
All of the Projects’s songs are about love, which is a universal feeling. I think the best thing musicians can do is work together, and in creating beautiful music can demonstrate to others that respect and appreciation of diversity is possible and leads to positive results. The Project has always tried to reach out an olive branch to people from other countries. For example, one of our concerts in New York was a benefit for the Pakistan Earthquake Relief fund, and the Ambassador from Pakistan was at the concert.
We recently played as part of a Middle Eastern music festival in Stockholm, and one of the other artists, who was from Lebanon, originally refused to participate in the festival when he heard an Israeli band was playing there. We reached out to him and explained what the message of the project was and that we have recorded with Palestinian singers, and he eventually decided he would play after all.
In our upcoming concert in Los Angeles we have as a special guest one of the most popular singers in the Persian community. It is not often that Israeli and Iranian musicians share a big stage together, and it is an important symbol of our desire to reach out to people of many different backgrounds and beliefs.
Find out more about the debut international release The Idan Raichel Project at www.cumbancha.com
See videos from the release at Fly’s Video Sharing site