The house lights come up. The stage lights flash for effect. The ten-piece band kicks into high gear and strikes up an ebullient major-key melody. The genteel seated crowd of about a thousand claps along to the fat 4/4 beat, and a lead singer steps to the front of stage, tromping up and down, setting the pace for the claps and the words, backed by a phalanx of smooth voices in pretty bodies. The song sustains for four minutes, a highlight amidst a 20-song set from one of a nation’s hottest musical acts in this decade.
This description is basic enough, easily transferred to many countries and many acts within a given country. What distinguishes this October concert from other concerts is the context. The show is in Israel, in an art hall in a suburb of Tel Aviv. The highlight song is “Brong Faya,” a song that combines Amharic and a pidginized Portuguese, and combines Ethiopian, Israeli, and Surinamese singers. The band is the Idan Raichel Project. The concert is a testament to art’s ability to stretch perceptions and open new possibilities, goals for society to strive for. And all of a sudden, there’s more to Israel than first meets the eye.
It’s easy to forget about Israel’s diversity. From afar, it’s the land of the Jews, a country that seems to constantly fight with their Arabic neighbors, and an extension of the American diaspora. Up close, the streets of Tel Aviv are cosmopolitan, but in a globalized, western way, and the streets of Jerusalem feel more Middle Eastern, but more strictly Jewish (excepting East Jerusalem). And the initial impression that everybody in the country drives like a maniac and depends on non-stop air conditioning four months a year blurs distinctions further.
Distinctions fracture Israel like so much desert rock, however, leaving wide gaps between groups that only grow under heat. There’s the most obvious split, between Jews and Arabs, the latter making up about 20% of the Israel population not including the territories. There’s the distinction between secular Jews and the increasingly growing Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox populations. The historic divide between Ashkenazi (European) and Sephardic (“Spanish”, i.e. Middle-Eastern and African) Jews persists, with Ashkenazis continuing to thrive more than their former diaspora counterparts.
If these splits might be considered inherent to Israeli society, the further diversity of Israel attests to both globalization and Israel’s unique character. Chalk up the unavoidable presence of Thai, Indian, Filipino, and Chinese workers and caregivers, legal and illegal, to the former. Include the huge Russian-speaking population, spanning the former Soviet Union from Baku to St. Petersburg to Bukhara, and the presence of Ethiopian Jews flown into the country in the early 90s, in the latter column.
All of these differences manifest in daily life in Israel. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen in either the melting pot tradition we like to claim in America or the “for the greater good of Zion” ethos that might persist in the Jewish Diaspora. The communities tend to self-segregate, as might happen anywhere; I know Russians who haven’t learned Hebrew after a decade here, because they just haven’t had to learn. The religious/secular battles are amongst the most heated in the parliament. A hierarchy is not so subtly set in place, with long-time Ashkenazi Jews higher up, followed by Sephardic Jews, then Russians, Ethiopians, Arabs, and the quasi-legal workforce.
The Ethiopian Jews make a curious case, particularly. On the one hand, they were “rescued” from Ethiopia to come to Israel, a long-lost tribe returning to the homeland. Their story is, or can be, one of Israel’s strongest PR claims, their proof that their arms are open to all Jews from any land. On the other hand, they still struggle to integrate fully into the new/old homeland, and face a stigma in broader Israeli society. One friend of mine received a startling response from Israelis to her study on and work with Ethiopians in a social welfare NGO: “Ethiopians? Why do you deal with them? They’re disgusting.” And an Ethiopian friend of mine sums up the ambivalence he faces in Israel: “Ehh, it’s not so bad. It’s worse for the Arabs.”
Idan Raichel released the eponymous debut of the Idan Raichel Project in 2002. Born out of his passion for music and an interest in the Ethiopian community after doing social work with Ethiopian teens at a high school, the project is known for its cultural stew. The swirl of languages, the marriage of Middle Eastern instruments with modern rock songwriting, and the racial mixture of the group all attest to the broader Israel. They offer a glimpse to what Israel could be.
Raichel is a tall man, easily over six feet, with dreadlocks that could stretch that far and sit precariously on his head, perched in such a way that they could easily be fake. He speaks English in a vaguely foreign, British-flavored accent, and when we met before the show, he was eager to small talk and offer tea, a seasoned pro at this point.
Still, Raichel’s enthusiasm for music and his group has not been stifled by professionalism. His words speak of national pride. “I would love to be labeled as Israeli music, as a soundtrack for Israel around the world,” he states when asked how to categorize his band. He cites Sacha Argov and Noemi Shemer as favorite artists of his youth, along with American jazz greats (Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington) and Tears for Fears. In our brief talk, as well as in his other interviews, there is no sign of an apology for where he’s from, no liberal guilt.
While in interviews Raichel has often disavowed any political intent behind his songs or music, he still stands as an eager uniting figure. The band’s songs drift through Amharic, Creole Portuguese, Creole English, Spanish, and Hebrew (among others), but mostly originate with him, before finding a language it can be performed in. “Sometimes I have for the same song three different versions, or different singers, or now even languages,” he says about “Odjus Fitxadu” off his latest album, Within My Walls.
More significantly, Raichel’s pride is most evident when discussing his success within Israel. “It’s the first time you could listen to the voices of the minorities in the Israeli mainstream media, or mainstream radio,” he says about his first album, “the first time you hear hits in emerging, or Ethiopian languages, or to have hits on mainstream radio in Moroccan.” Beyond the music itself, this is where Raichel has made his biggest impact, and it’s clear he’s happy about it.
The concert shows just how mainstream the Project is in Israel. The crowd consists of a base beyond typical rock show attendance, older and more cultured. The setting is a Performing Arts Center, and for the first few songs, the band is relatively restrained, as if they’re not sure how to transpose their energy to a more polite audience.
It’s telling, then, that on the songs like “Brong Faya” and “Ayal Ayale”, the Amharic songs that is, that the theater comes to life. Israeli crowds tend to be emphatic clappers during songs, to the point of being irritating, but on these songs the beat is undeniable, and the right to clap earned.
The night is a success, as expected. Colombian singers, ouds, and a giant water pit for percussion all show up as part of the show, as well as Raichel’s jovial banter and storytelling between songs. The encore comes right on cue and lasts for four songs, the lights come up, and everybody goes home happy. The Idan Raichel Project is an established act at this point, bankable and reliable night in and night out.
This might make the Project seem fossilized, staid, and unimportant. Israeli society continues to splinter, the political conflict with the Palestinians persists, and any art that doesn’t stand in outright protest against these ills is at best ineffectual and at worse tolerant of intolerance.
That is a bit of an unrealistic argument, however. Without pinning down Raichel’s politics, it seems fair to say that his band is doing something to improve life in Israel. Even if the effect is intangible, the mélange of cultures and sounds that he brings together under, “the umbrella, the big umbrella of the Project,” as he puts it, gives a new look to what Israel can be. We can hope, at least, that the country as a whole, still 62 years young, might mature into a similar sort of umbrella: cohesive, united, and joyous.