Profile: Israeli Music Star Idan Raichel


The traditional folk music of Ethiopian Jews has played a big part in the sound and success of a pop music star from Israel who is now on tour in the US. Idan Raichel collaborated with dozens of musicians of many different backgrounds for his first two CDs, and that has brought new interest to traditional cultures unfamiliar to many Israelis. Howard Felson reports from Jerusalem.

HOWARD FELSON reporting:

Idan Raichel is the 27-year-old producer, arranger, composer, keyboard player and occasional singer of the hottest musical group in Israel. His music combines Israeli pop with ethnic folk music of the Ethiopian immigrant community. His new CD takes its title from the biblical book of Psalms, or Tehillim in Hebrew. In the verse (foreign language spoken), `From out of the depths, I call to you.’


Mr. IDAN RAICHEL (Musician): It’s about this feeling that sometimes everything is–you take it as it is. But when we are down, deep down, we start to think about it and we’re calling God when the situation is not very good.

FELSON: Raichel’s grandparents came from Europe, and he grew up on Israeli folk music, playing the accordion. After he’d served in the Israeli army’s entertainment troupe, he worked as a musical director at a boarding school for teen-agers. There, he met many Ethiopian teens who taught him about their music. He built a home recording studio in his parents’ basement, brought dozens of musicians through, and two years ago recorded a demo tape, hoping to get a job as a producer or arranger. A record company liked what it heard and released the demo. Raichel’s debut CD jumped to number one, including four number-one singles on the Israeli charts. The music featured Hebrew pop compositions mixed with Ethiopian folk songs and spoken text in Amharic and Tikrit, which are Ethiopian languages.


Mr. RAICHEL: The connection is about–it’s about the vibe, the vibe of love songs. It’s like the magic. I can sleep with every woman, but there is one woman that I got the vibe with her. Also, I used folk Ethiopian songs. I can take lots of songs and combine them together as a compilation. But you have to search the vibe that would take only songs to the same place that one and one become three.


FELSON: According to government statistics, there are about 90,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Many of them arrived in the 1980s and ’90s. Sharon Shalom came as a child, leaving his parents behind. He says that when the Ethiopians arrived, they were met on the one hand with love and empathy, but also with practical and institutional discrimination.

Mr. SHARON SHALOM (Ethiopian Jew): (Foreign language spoken)

FELSON: Now a rabbi, Shalom lectures on Ethiopian traditions, customs and culture at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.

Mr. SHALOM: (Foreign language spoken)

FELSON: According to Shalom, many Ethiopian immigrant teen-agers choose to identify not with their own culture, which they have either lost or abandoned because they believe it’s been denigrated, but rather with African-American culture. Hip-hop and other symbols of African-American culture are very popular in Israel. Some also feel they share a common sense of oppression with African-Americans. Shalom says the music of Idan Raichel is important because it puts Ethiopian culture on the table for Israelis to see and puts the Ethiopian on the map, giving the immigrant youth something very real and authentic to be proud of.


Mr. RAICHEL: They have to remember that they like hip-hop, but they’re not from Harlem. They like reggae, but they are not Bob Marley. They are Ethiopian, and they have a real, great culture. What I’m doing is music. I’m not dealing with racism, or I’m not dealing with this. I’m doing music, but I think music is the answer to all this. This is what makes younger teen-agers from this boarding school to be proud that now everybody asks them, `What’s this singer singing about? How can I hear this original song?’ This is the real answer for everything, this merging cultures.

FELSON: Raichel uses the name Idan Raichel’s Project to include the 70 or so musicians he’s recorded, many of whom appear on his two CDs.


Ms. SHOSHANNA DAMARI: (Singing in foreign language)

FELSON: Shoshanna Damari came from Yemen as a child in the 1920s before Israeli statehood. She’s among the most famous Israeli singers in a career entwined with the history of the country. Now in her 80s, she sang two original Raichel compositions on his newest CD.

Ms. DAMARI: He’s genius in his work. He takes different nationalities, I mean, like Yemenites and Arab and Ethiopians and Hebrew, and you know, he got them together and this is what we have in Israel. I mean, these people that–they live in Israel.

Mr. RAICHEL: At the end of the day, they all sing about love songs, and it sounds great in Arabic, it sounds great in Amharic, it sounds great in English. It’s all about love.

FELSON: Idan Raichel is currently touring the US. He wants to bring his message of merging cultures to American audiences. For NPR News, I’m Howard Felson in Jerusalem.


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