Interview: Idan Raichel

He’s probably Israel’s coolest global export


Idan Raichel started playing the accordion when he was nine. It was, he says, “the uncoolest instrument ever”, associated as it was with old-fashioned Israeli folk songs. But his suffering has paid off.

Now accordions have a wholly different reputation, thanks to bands like the Argentinian Gotan Project on the world music scene.

Raichel’s multi-cultural music collective — The Idan Raichel Project — has also made a name for itself since its inception seven years ago. Highlights include playing at New York’s Central Park in 2007, at the Sydney Opera House in 2008 and two albums going triple platinum (selling over 120,000) in Israel in 2002 and 2005.

The band, which plays Israeli pop fused with tuneful melodies in global styles ranging from Ethiopian, to Moroccan, Spanish and Yemenite, features 90 musicians from Israel’s diaspora.

“Seeing us live is definitely a kind of experience like watching a theatre show,” says the charismatic Raichel, 31, who grew up in and now lives in Tel Aviv.

The producer, composer and keyboardist’s third album, Within My Walls, is more reflective than the more upbeat first two. It offers up plenty of “chill out” songs in a Spanish style, like the haunting Todos Las Palabras, and Cada Dia, which features Colombian guest star Marta Gomez. Some have South American pan pipes; others, in Hebrew and Arabic, draw on influences nearer to home.

The creation of this collective brought together Israel’s various immigrant cultures.

“No matter what their political views are, the main thing is that all are recording for this project,” says Raichel, who worked with Arab Israeli singer Mira Anwar Awad on his previous album.

“I think that this kind of project can plant some seeds. It’s about people coming together to play music. The main challenge is to prove that people can trust each other and live their lives next to each other as neighbours, not to convince your neighbour that you are right. There is no one truth.”

With 90 musicians involved and 15 of them on tour, this is not your regular band with two guitarists, lead singer, bass guitar and drums. Everyone has a say in how the band should be run and what they play.

“You can compare it to a dance company that travels all over the world,” explains Raichel. “It’s not as if the choreographer performs by himself. It’s like a movie production. There’s the producer, scriptwriters, extras, lighting people, supporting actors and main actors.

“To have so many different people makes it more exciting. The blend sometimes changes when we’re on tour, as people with families need to go back home. That makes it more interesting.”

Raichel does not have children of his own and his girlfriend, who lives in Tel Aviv, is from Austria so is used to all the travelling.

His parents, who live in the town of Kfar Saba, would have preferred him to become a doctor or a lawyer, he says. But they are proud of what he has achieved. They were particularly impressed when they went to see him play in Central Park in front of an audience of thousands.

“None of the people spoke Hebrew, they all just enjoyed the music. That’s what makes it so great doing our Israeli music outside Israel.”

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