Multicultural music collective performs at Stanford

When the Idan Raichel Project performs at Stanford Memorial Auditorium on Sunday, Nov. 4, the eight musicians and vocalists will celebrate their roots in Yemen, Iran, Uruguay, Ethiopia, Suriname and Eastern Europe.

But all of them call Israel home.

“For us, we’re doing Israeli music,” says Raichel during a phone interview from Tel Aviv. “It’s not world music for us. It’s based on the sounds of the streets of Tel Aviv. For people outside Israel, they consider it world music. They can hear the blend, the melting pot.”

Raichel will bring that blend to Stanford for the second time. The concert is supported in part by Hillel at Stanford and the Taube Center for Jewish Studies.

A mere 30 years old, Raichel is the producer, arranger, player of multiple keyboards and songwriter. But he is not the lead singer. In fact, he solos on only one track in the group’s self-titled album — a lyrical Hebrew love song based on the Song of Songs.

“I don’t sing much,” he says. “You should hear me once singing to understand why.”

Raichel uses the term “project” to indicate that the collective is not a band and he is not the star. “Every song is different, with different musicians and different singers.”

Raichel’s talent lies in fusing elements from a variety of traditions, sometimes within a single song. For example, “Mi Ma’amakim” (“Out of the Depths”) contains a counterpoint from a traditional Ethiopian song, “Nanu Nanu Ney.”

Samuel Alemayehu, a Stanford senior and Hillel board member from Ethiopia, credits Raichel with putting Israel’s “minority culture [on] center stage.” After Raichel’s first album came out five years ago, it was “the first time the Ethiopian Jewish community was celebrated and highlighted in Israeli pop culture.”

In 2002, Raichel invited some 70 friends to record their music in his parents’ Kfar Saba basement. The musicians, ages 16 to 84, included new émigrés, seventh-generation Israelis, Moroccans, Yemenites and Ethiopians. The collective was born.

Since then, the project has gone global, with performances in venues from the Tel Aviv Opera House to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. In June, the collective performed at San Francisco’s Stern Grove.

Last year an album was released internationally. The enhanced CD includes music videos, some of which are on the project’s Web site, www.idanraichelproject.com, along with audio clips.

While the project’s purpose is to share musical traditions, breaking down barriers is also part of the equation. Performing at the Apollo in 2005, where so many African American musicians made their mark, Raichel was “happy that the audience was so open-minded” and able to appreciate music in a variety of languages. During that visit, the musicians visited Harlem schools and churches as part of a bridge-building effort, revealing Israel’s ethnic diversity.

Dreadlocks and head wraps belie Raichel’s own roots, which are Eastern European. Born in Kfar Saba, he began playing the accordion at age 9, graduating to keyboards as a teenager, when he began studying jazz. During his compulsory service, he joined the Israeli army rock band. Soon he was producing live shows.

After the army, he worked as a counselor at an Israeli boarding school for immigrants and troubled youth. It was there that he discovered Ethiopian folk and pop music, and took on the mission of preserving the Ethiopian cultural traditions through music.

“It was the first time for me to get to the problems of self-identity of émigrés, especially Africans,” many of whom were rushing to assimilate, he says.

A number of the songs take their inspiration from Scripture. “I don’t practice, but I do believe,” Raichel says, then cites an Israeli expression: “Know where you came from.”

The Idan Raichel Project
performs at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4, at Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University. Tickets: $44/$38/$26/$18; half-price for Stanford students and youth under 15. Information and tickets: (650) 725-ARTS (2787) or https://livelyarts.stanford.edu.

A version of this article appeared in the Palo Alto Weekly.

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