In 2003, an unusual song began airing on Israeli’s popular radio stations. With its haunting chorus in the Ethiopian language of Amharic and an exotic, global fusion sound “Bo’ee” became an instant crossover hit that catapulted The Idan Raichel Project to the top of Israel pop charts and turned a young dreadlocked keyboardist and producer into a household name in his native land. Soon, The Idan Raichel Project would become known around the world for its ambitious cross-cultural collaborations that changed the face of Israeli popular music and offered “a fascinating window into the young, tolerant, multi-ethnic Israel taking shape away from the headlines” (Boston Globe). Since the release of their first international album on Cumbancha in the fall 2006 The Idan Raichel Project has become a global ambassador representing a hopeful world in which artistic collaboration breaks down barriers between people of different backgrounds and beliefs.
Idan Raichel, the architect of this unique project, is a keyboardist, producer and composer from Kfar Saba, a city near Tel Aviv. Idan was born in 1977 to a family with Eastern European roots, and although music was an important part of his upbringing, his parents did not place much emphasis on performing music from his particular cultural background. “I think the fact that I didn’t have strong family musical roots is what made me be very open to music from all over the world,” says Idan. Idan started playing the accordion (which he likes to call “the uncoolest instrument ever”) when he was 9 years old, and even at this young age was attracted to the exotic sounds of Gypsy music and tango.
As a teenager, Idan started playing keyboards, and studied jazz in high school, which honed his skills at improvisation and working with other musicians. In Israel, military service is mandatory for all young men and women, so at eighteen Idan was conscripted into the Israeli army. Ironically, it was in this military setting that Idan developed musical skills that would prove essential later in life. Rather then heading to the front lines in this volatile region, Idan joined the Army rock band and toured military bases performing covers of Israeli and European pop hits. As the musical director of the group, he became adept at arrangements and producing live shows, and turned his experience in the Army into a productive and positive one.
Idan soon become a successful backup musician and recording session player for some of Israel’s most popular singers. After a few years of helping others gain success and notoriety, Idan decided it was time to pursue a project that reflected his musical ideals, and he began working on a demo recording in a small studio he set up in the basement of his parent’s home in Kfar Saba. He thought it would be a good idea to invite a number of different singers and musicians to participate, in order to better demonstrate his distinct styles and the ways in which he worked with a variety of artists.
Idan had long been fascinated with the diversity of Israel and sought to celebrate his appreciation and respect for different cultures through his music. Because of its open door to immigrants from Jewish communities around the globe, Israel is home to a stew of cultures and traditions, including people of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Latin American and Eastern European roots. Yemenite Jews offer traditions that reflect thousands of years of living in the country of Yemen on the southern edges of the Arabian Peninsula. Israel’s Sephardic community consists of people who had incorporated the traditions of Spain, North Africa and the Mediterranean region where they had lived for centuries. The largest immigrant population in Israel consists of Ashkenazi Jews, who had come mostly from Russia and Eastern Europe. More recently, over 85,000 Ethiopian Jews now call Israel home after efforts to naturalize this so-called “lost tribe of Israel” through dramatic airlifts in the 1980s and 90s. In addition, there is a large Arab community, which makes up almost 20% of the official total population of Israel.
Idan invited over 70 of his friends and colleagues from Israel’s diverse music scene to participate in his recordings. He never expected his musical experiments to turn him into Israel’s biggest musical phenomenon in recent memory. Idan created the core songs of his first album as a demo, and began shopping for a record label to help him produce a full album of his own. While most of the Israeli labels considered his work too “ethnic” and too outside of the norms of the formulaic Israeli pop scene to have any hope of success, Helicon Records heard the potential in Idan’s work and quickly signed him on to the roster. The subsequent album was an immediate hit.
As the interest in the recording began to grow, demand for live shows increased, including an offer Idan couldn’t refuse from the prestigious Opera House of Tel Aviv. Given the number of musicians who participated in the recordings, it would have been impossible to have them all appear on stage, so Idan decided to pick a core group of performers in addition to himself who were both versatile and strong individual artists in their own right.
From the beginning, Idan saw the project as a collaboration between artists who each bring their own musical culture and talents to the stage. “There would be no front man,” Idan says. “I would sit at the side and watch things and see what occurs. Every song would have a different singer, we would sit in a half circle and each musician would have a chance to demonstrate what they have to offer.” The live show became symbolic of the album, as it brought together a group of people of different backgrounds but each is equal to the other. Over the years, the touring band has helped make stars of Cabra Casey, a singer of Ethiopian heritage who was born in a refugee camp in Sudan as her family was making the difficult journey to Israel, Ravid Kahalani, whose band Yemen Blues explores his Yemenite roots, and drummer Gilad Shmueli, a respected producer of many popular Israeli artists who has played an essential role in the development of The Project since the beginning. The Project also brought renewed attention to the legendary Yemenite-Israeli singer Shoshana Damari who recorded and performed with the group just before her death in 2006 at the age of 86.
This sentiment is reflected in the decision to name the collective The Idan Raichel Project. Says Raichel, “If I had called the album just ‘Idan Raichel,’ people would have thought that Raichel is the main voice on all the songs. I wrote the songs and I arranged and produced them, but I perform them together with other vocalists and musicians. On the other hand, we are not a group. It’s something in between." To date over 95 different singers aged 16 to 91 years old from dozens of different countries and cultural backgrounds have participated in the Project’s recordings or performances.
The Idan Raichel Project has released 4 studio albums and a 3-CD collection of live recordings in Israel on the Helicon label. In 2006, the US-based record label Cumbancha released a compilation of the group’s first two albums worldwide, bringing even more renown to this inspirational collective. Billboard Magazine called The Idan Raichel Project “One of the most fascinating titles to emerge in world music this year…a multi-ethnic tour de force.” The New York Times selected the album as one of the top world music releases of the year, and media from Peru to Portugal was unanimous in their praise. The album also received a nomination as one of the best world music albums of the year by the BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music.
In 2009 the Idan Raichel Project released their second international release Within My Walls. Much of the album was recorded while Idan was on tour, during recording sessions in hotel rooms, backstage dressing areas, private homes and other impromptu settings. During his extensive travels, Idan met with scores of musicians from diverse backgrounds, and ever the collaborator, he made sure to exchange musical ideas with them. Along the way, he recorded and co-wrote songs with Colombian singer Marta Gómez, Cape Verdean luminary Mayra Andrade and the silken-voiced Somi of Rwandan and Ugandan heritage.
The Project’s spectacular live show has enchanted audiences worldwide. They have headlined in some of the world’s most prestigious venues, including New York's Central Park Summer Stage, Apollo Theater, Town Hall and Radio City Music Hall, Los Angeles’ Kodak Theater, the Sydney Opera House, Zenith and Bataclan in Paris, London’s Royal Albert Hall and many international festivals. They have also performed across Europe, South & Central America, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Ethiopia, South Africa, Ghana and dozens of other countries for enraptured audiences of all backgrounds.
Despite the egalitarian nature of the Project, Raichel is clearly the driving force and over the years his talents have led him to become involved in many side projects. A chance meeting with Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré (the son of the legendary Ali Farka Touré) led Idan to invite Vieux to Israel to perform at the Tel Aviv Opera House in November 2010. That concert resulted in the formation of The Toure-Raichel Collective and the recording of the acclaimed album The Tel Aviv Session, which was released in March 2012. The result of an inspired afternoon jam session in Tel Aviv, the resulting album was hailed by the media as “a masterpiece” (about.com), “simply divine” (Giant Step), “deeply affecting” (The Wall Street Journal), “a cross cultural triumph” (Time Out Chicago) and “the best album this year” (Pop Matters). The album reached the number one spot on the iTunes World Music sales charts and peaked at number 2 on the Billboard World Music Chart. The Touré-Raichel Collective’s US and Canada tour in April 2012 was an unparalleled success with numerous sold-out shows and rave reviews.
In 2012, Raichel received a special honor when Shimon Peres, the President of Israel and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, asked him to compose music for a poem Peres had written in dedication to Israel’s Ethiopian community. The song, “The Eyes of Beta Israel,” was performed in front of 3000 people during a high-profile concert in Jerusalem in January 2012.
Raichel has also worked closely with GRAMMY winner India.Arie on their joint project Open Door. Idan and India have become frequent collaborators since they met in 2008 when India was visiting Israel. They performed together at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in front of President Obama and family on the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day after Obama’s election. Idan and India played their song “Gift of Acceptance” at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize gala event in Oslo, Norway, and in August 2011 they performed together at the dedication ceremony for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC. India and Idan toured the US together in 2011.
The Idan Raichel Project’s latest album, Quarter to Six was released in 2013. The album features guest appearances by Portuguese fado star Ana Moura, Palestinian-Israeli singer Mira Awad, German counter-tenor Andreas Scholl, Colombia’s Marta Gómez, Vieux Farka Touré and a selection of some of Israel’s top up-and-coming singers and musicians. In its review, The Associated Press commented, "The idea that one could create a cohesive album by pulling together unique voices singing in different languages and from different musical traditions would seem daunting. Yet this challenge is what Israeli keyboardist and composer Idan Raichel has embraced and brought to blossom." In just the first two months since after it was released, Quarter to Six reached double-platinum sales status in Israel, selling over 80,000 copies.
2013 has been overflowing with praise, awards and acclaim for Idan Raichel and the Project. Raichel and the Project were honored with an invitation to perform at a private concert for President Barack Obama during his official visit to Israel in March. In July, world-renowned pop star Alicia Keys invited Raichel on stage for a special duet during her sold-out concert at Nokia Stadium in Tel Aviv. One month later, Raichel shared the stage with French superstar Patrick Bruel. In September, at the end of the Jewish year, popular Israeli entertainment magazine Pnai Plus selected Raichel as "Man of the Year" and the song "Ba'Layla (At Night)" from the Idan Raichel Project's latest album was honored as "Song of the Year."