Interview: The Idan Raichel Project

Only a few years ago, Idan Raichel was just some dreadlocked guy in a Tel Aviv basement, composing music on his synthesizers. First schooled on the accordion at the age of nine, Raichel branched out to Latin American and gypsy music. His time in the Israeli Army band solidified his musical skills. While there, he also came into contact with many Ethiopian Jews, which tuned him into the greater frequency of world music.

Soon, it wasn’t just Raichel and his synthesizer anymore. He was utilizing upwards of 70 musicians, changing a cast on every episode. In 2006, after releasing two proper albums in his native Israel, Raichel’s self-titled “greatest hits” album became a channel to international success. Now, in preparation for the release of his new record, Within My Walls — in Hebrew, “Bein Kirot Beiti” — Raichel prepares for an even greater reception, an ever-expanding Project (now numbering nearly 100 musicians) and an international tour which brings him to New York’s Town Hall next week, as well as Los Angeles, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and other locations on his United States leg.

Unfortunately, Raichel’s voice gave out days before. While recuperating, we had to exchange our telephone interview for an email one, and so we got to catch the master of the Project in the middle of his globe-trotting schedule.

What’s your songwriting process? Do you always work with the same musicians?

The idea of the Project is to have a new “cast” for each song. It gives us the ability to be very precise by the sound and vibe that we want to create, the right leader and right musicians that will support him.

The Israeli perception of pop, and of music in general, is very different than in the United States — it feels, as a listener at least, like there’s a lot more freedom in Israeli music, like when you drop a jungle beat on a slow song like “Bein Kirot Beiti.”

I always start a song with the vocals and I let the melody and the rendition of the song guide how the rest of the song develops. Then I just add what the singer needs to support him or her. If he needs only an acoustic guitar, then we give him that. If he needs something more electronic to contrast with what he is doing, we add that.

I like many different types of music, so I just try to use the best thing to enhance the melody and the singer’s voice. If it needs a contemporary beat, I’ll take it in that direction. The vibe is what is most important. I feel lucky that the listeners have an open mind and can follow where the music goes.

Some of the songs on your new album are in languages that most of your listeners don’t speak. What do you want people to get out of those songs?

I would like the listeners to hear themselves in something they maybe don’t understand completely. Sometimes, distance and language can be a challenge, but music has a way of overcoming these difficulties.

Do you feel more constrained when you’re making an international album than when you’re making an Israeli one?

No, our music in any case is Israel music, even if we distribute or performing with it out of Israel, so for us it is just a challenge to sing to the world in our native languages, Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic, Spanish, and so on…although the only official language in Israel is Hebrew. We have all these languages because we are all immigrants from other parts of the world.

Do you write your own Spanish lyrics? How much of the project is collaborative?

Working with [Colombian-born, New York-based] Marta [Gómez, Raichel’s vocal collaborator on several songs on the new album] is a pleasure. On “Within My Walls” I wrote songs in Hebrew and Marta took the song and wrote her own version in her native language so each song that is in another language is a real collaboration.

How do you go about adapting these songs for your live show?

The live show is a powerful experience. We work to create an ensemble that can represent the 90-plus artists that have been involved in the project over the years. We sit in a semi-circle on stage, I am off to the side, and each artist gets a chance to shine. I thought this embodied the collaborative spirit of the project.

We have been touring with the live show for a few years now. It ranges in mood from soft, beautiful songs to very powerful and upbeat songs.

What’s it been like to connect with U.S. audiences? Are the audiences all Jewish, or mostly Jewish?

I love playing in the U.S. because the shows attract a great mix of all types of people. Of course, the Jewish community is very supportive as is the project and it is great to play for them. In the U.S., as with all over the world, I want my shows to be a meeting place for people of all faiths or beliefs to come and share in music.

Are the crowds at your American shows much more Jewish-identifying than the crowds in Israel? Does it ever affect your own Jewish identity, or cause you to become a Jewish spokesperson of sorts?

The Project is Israeli, but not a Jewish one. Not all of the members are Jewish. We are happy to have in our audience Israelis or Jewish people that are proud to have us all over the world, representing the music of Israel of this decade.

The Idan Raichel Project’s United States tour starts next Sunday, March 22, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and comes to New York City on Thursday, March 26. Visit Mr. Raichel’s website for the Project’s full schedule.

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