The musical traditions the world over are heard in the fusion that is today popular Israeli music. Now for the first time, Ethiopian music has gone mainstream in a unique and eclectic new album that showcases Israel’s ethnic diversity. This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Report magazine’s March 24, 2003, edition and is reprinted with permission.
It all started when Idan Raichel bought a simple music-recording program for his PC. Raichel was 23 years old, a year out of the army, and living at home with his parents in Kfar Saba. He set up his computer in the basement and began inviting people over to record Hebrew and Amharic songs, instrumentals, love letters, and even portions of the Bible.
The Idan Raichel Project
Late last year, two years after he began recording the eclectic and highly melodic tracks, Raichel, who by now was playing piano with the popular Israeli singer Ivri Lider, sent out a sample tape to record companies “as a business card”–proof of what he could do as a producer. Guy Gidor, the producer who received his tracks at Helicon Records, saw the potential in Raichel’s four sample songs, and asked the artist to bolster them with seven more. Gidor had the songs remixed in a studio in London and released them in Israel in December as an album, “The Idan Raichel Project.” Almost immediately, its first single soared to the top of the local charts, and by the end of February 2003, the album had sold over 25,000 copies.
Despite the success, many critics aren’t raving. Gidi Avivi, a music critic for the daily Ha’aretz, for instance, wrote that “with all of the enjoyment involved in humming Hebrew tunes dipped in Ethiopian musical influence, it’s hard to recognize anything beyond a sweet, superficial coating on a rich and complex culture… It hints at the fact that you need not be Dr. Livingstone to walk around in circles.”
But “The Idan Raichel Project” is more than a circular route; in fact, its success may be, in and of itself, a sign of progress. The euphonious mix of songs compiled in the album marks–albeit among other things–the first time Ethiopian music has hit the big time in Israel. The disc is neither simply exotic nor provincial–it’s a mix of the two.