I was listening to KBCS a few days ago and the DJ played a song that knocked me out. Being Jewish, having a strong interest in Israel, and knowing Hebrew, whenever I hear Hebrew anywhere my ears perk up. But this song didn’t start out in Hebrew. It started out in an African language I didn’t recognize (which later turned out to be Amharic) with a performer calmly speaking lyrics. Only later did the song switch to Hebrew lyrics and the melody and lyrics took on tremendous urgency and passion.
I was listening to Bo’i (“Come”–hear it in AAC format) a huge Israeli hit by the Idan Raichel Project. And the Amharic comes by way of Israel’s large Ethiopian community which immigrated during Operation Moses in 1984. The Ethiopians have found it hard to integrate into Israel since it is a largely ethnically fragmented society. The power of music is that it can acknowledge these tensions and overcome them by integrating the sounds of diverse cultures into a single song.
What impresses me about Raichel’s music is that he is attempting in musical terms to create an amalgam of all of the cultural and ethnic strands that constitute Israeli culture. He is doing this much more boldly than most other Israeli performers who are content to perform in a conventional and largely derivative western idiom. Raichel is searching for something more. He recognizes that Israel is not in Europe or Brazil, but rather smack in the middle of the Middle East. To achieve a genuine Israeli sound that recognizes and embraces this fact is a great achievement. What is also remarkable is that Raichel is of Ashkenazi ethnic background. He does not come naturally by way of embracing Israel’s eastern roots. So in a sense his is a rebellion on many fronts against normative culture.
Here is what Raichel’s biography says at his website about his family background:
Idan Raichel, the architect of this unique recording project, is a 29-year old keyboardist, producer and composer from Kfar Saba. 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 when he was 9 years old, and even at this young age was attracted to the exotic sounds of Gypsy music and tango.
Here is some background of how he came to his interest in Ethiopian music:
After he was discharged [from the IDF] Idan starting working as a counselor at a boarding school for immigrants and troubled youth. Notably, the school was filled with young people from Ethiopia who were part of Israel’s growing community of Ethiopian Jews. It was here that Idan first started getting familiar with Ethiopian folk and pop music. While most of the young people in the school rejected their own cultural traditions in an effort to assimilate into mainstream Israeli society, a small core of Ethiopian teenagers remained fans of Ethiopian music. They passed around cassettes of songs from artists like Mahmoud Ahmed, Aster Aweke, Gigi and others, and the exotic, otherworldly melodies piqued Idan’s curiosity. “I started to hear lots of cassettes from Addis Ababa. Village music, like Ethiopian pop and reggae, or the native village songs,” says Raichel. “I noticed that immigrants from the Ethiopian community changed their names when they got to Israel. They try to assimilate into Western culture and don’t keep their roots.” He wanted these kids to “remember that they like hip-hop but they are not from Harlem, they like reggae but they are not Bob Marley. The Ethiopians have a great culture that should be cherished.”
Idan started going to Ethiopian bars and clubs in downtown Tel Aviv. It was like entering another world, a country within a country that remains a secret from most Israelis. As his connections to the community deepened, Idan began attending Ethiopian synagogues, weddings and other ceremonies, and he began to learn more about Ethiopian music and culture.
And this provides a pretty good summary of Raichel’s musical mission:
Idan was a unique talent that offered a new vision for how Israelis, their neighbors in this volatile region, and people all over the world, can cherish their own cultural traditions, celebrate their differences and through respectful collaboration create new and inspiring expressions.
While this may sound quite prosaic to a westerner steeped in multiculturalism, to know Israeli society is to understand how radical such an all-embracing view is. Israel is a country that devours cultural difference and subsumes it into an artificial “Israeliness.” Ethnicity is frowned upon. When you become an oleh chadash (new immigrant) you tend to flee your past adopting a Hebrew name and even a new Hebrew surname to eliminate your Diaspora past. So what Raichel is doing is quite radical and refreshing.
But hey, none of this cultural-social analysis would matter worth a damn if the music didn’t groove and it does.
Thanks to Richard Isaac for providing me the mp3.