The University of Washington World Music concert series announced its 2014-15 schedule recently. In November, it will feature the Raichel-Toure Collective, which includes Israel’s world music star, Idan Raichel and Malian star, Vieux Farka Toure. Toure is the son of Ali Farka Toure, who together with Ry Cooder produced one of the best world music fusion albums of the 1990s, the Grammy-winning Talking Timbuktu.
Raichel is a gifted, charismatic performer who, despite being Ashkenazi, wears dreadlocks and almost channels an eastern musical style. Not exactly Mizrahi, but a melange of sound and tone that is neither western nor pop. It’s drawn a huge following in Israel. Now, he’s seeking to break out of the Israeli market and introduce his music to the wider world. Raichel’s campaign for international recognition coincides with the Netanyahu government’s almost desperate efforts to leverage every possible Israeli asset for political gain.
A 2010 Yisrael HaYom profile even says:
Idan Raichel intends to achieve his goal and dreams of a Grammy.
In many other countries, Raichel might be a political dissident, or at least a free-thinker willing to challenge conventional beliefs for the sake of diversity and tolerance. Not in Israel. The Israeli musician sees himself as a patriotic cultural and political ambassador for his nation:
“I believe our role as artists is to enlist in Israeli hasbara. This is a war to save our home, to save our nation. In time of war, we must all enlist. Period. I grasp hands with our soldiers, yes those so moral; and strengthen the IDF as a moral army such as you won’t find in all the world.”
After listening to Raichel’s music you may find it hard to believe that someone with such an extraordinary gift for sound has such a tin-ear when it comes to politics. Boosting militarism may sell tickets in Israel, but I don’t think it will fill seats in the wider world.
In the Hebrew press, Raichel is slightly more exposed and deliberative. The Yisrael HaYom profile says:
In everything concerning his political views, he’s the height of political correctness. He doesn’t disclose his views. But he does have one position about which he is very clear: he is patriotic but critical: “I don’t automatically justify all that Israel and its leaders do. There is a small percentage of Knesset members who are true leaders…He protests that he is not an ambassador for Israel at his performances [!], but every time a protest is organized against his performances, he goes outside to speak with the protesters. “I say to them: come tell me how we seem from the outside. I try to learn from them and hope they will learn from me. We may not come to an understanding, but perhaps they will at things a bit differently.
Spoken like a true liberal Zionist, albeit one who happily performs at Avigdor Lieberman’s settlement at Nokdim.
There is a far more seamy side to Raichel’s politics. A few years ago, I exposed the real identity of an IDF torturer, Doron Zahavi (aka “Captain George”) who, during an interrogation raped Mustafa Dirani, a Lebanese militant allegedly involved in the kidnapping of Israeli airman, Ron Arad. The torture of Dirani brought no useful information about Arad’s whereabouts and his remains have never been found. Dirani appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, which forced his release. He’s now in the process of suing the State for the injuries he sustained. Zahavi was cashiered from military service and now serves as the “Arab affairs coordinator” for the Jerusalem police. He unsuccessfully sued the State for firing him, claiming he was a good, loyal soldiers sacrificed on the altar of political expedience.
Here Raichel embraces the rapist with full-throated support:
The man to whom we are indebted for the information about Ron Arad–instead of getting a medal, he’s fighting for his good name. It’s a dirty rotten shame. Dirani never worried about Arad’s basic human rights. It’s truly of no interest to me how “George” got the information about Arad from Dirani. SHAME!
Tell me if in his interrogation it would’ve been sufficient to read him 15th-century poetry to finally break him so that he would tell us the information about the unfortunate Arad. I have a sense that on the one hand “George’s” expertise isn’t in this type of poetry; but that on the other, he knows his own job pretty well.
Note Raichel’s false claim that the nation is indebted to Zahavi for information about Arad which, in actuality, was never produced by the torture. It’s a blanket acceptance of the outrages of the national security state. As for knowing his job pretty well, Zahavi is continuing in his current Jerusalem police job where he left off with Dirani. He regularly threatens and browbeats Palestinians in Jerusalem into becoming informants.
You can also get a sense of the moral equivocation in the lyrics of this 2011 Raichel song, Gift of Acceptance, performed in collaboration with India Arie:
“We can debate till the end of time who’s wrong and who is right, Or I can honor your choices and you can honor mine … Give the world a present, give the gift of your acceptance.”
Of course, an Israeli filled with moral ambivalence about his country’s “choices” would want the world to sympathize with the hard road he travels. He’d want the world to acknowledge his grappling with this conundrum. He wouldn’t want the world to actually force him to do or change anything in his behavior. He’d just want affirmation. So that is what Raichel demands here: acceptance. He tells us to forget arguing. Just trust that I’m a decent human being seeking to do the right thing. And accept my good intentions. Then all will be well. This is precisely the sort of false thinking that afflicts liberal Zionists. I may be shooting, but I’m crying as I do it. Don’t I deserve credit for that?
That’s why the BDS-activist community should be aware of the Seattle-Boulder performances so it can respond accordingly. Henry Norr tells me there is also a Boulder concert scheduled. There are no other dates I know of, though I’m sure their agent is attempting to book concert dates as I write this.
There’s another important element of this effort, the collaboration with an African musician. As you’ll know from reading this blog, Israel has a history of touting and exploiting its outreach to African nations going back to their becoming independent of their colonial masters in the 1950s and 60s. Ben Gurion sent foreign aid, agricultural consultants and Mossad spies throughout the continent to spread the “Good News” of Israel’s alliance with African liberation movements.
Today, ex-IDF generals comb the continent for tyrants desperate and brutal enough to utilize their services to fix elections (Zimbabwe) and combat guerrilla insurgencies (Guinea). In the process, they earn multi-million dollar paydays. There are other Israelis stripping conflict diamonds and other resources from countries like the Congo, Angola, and Mozambique. They can truly say, much like Garrett Morris’ Saturday Night Live character: Africa’s been very, very good to me.
Raichel is doing a cultural version of this. By linking with African musicians he spreads the gospel of Israeli solidarity with the Third World. Let’s face it, African music is cool. Personally, I’ve loved it since I was a graduate student in the 1980s. It’s transcendent. It makes you dance. It emanates joy. That’s a pretty heady offering. Raichel, in addition to being a good musician, knows what will sell. A dread-locked Israeli with a Malian star makes for a compelling storyline. No doubt, their next album will be nominated for a Grammy and possibly win. Think of the hasbara value.
Think of the disconnect between Raichel’s embrace of African music, when 50,000 African refugees languish in Israel, stateless and without rights; privy to the whims of raging Tel Aviv mobs and police who stop and arrest them for no cause. Think of the refugees confined to a concentration camp in Holot without being offered any due process. What has Raichel done for them? When did he ever do a concert for them with Vieux Farka Toure, India Arie or any of his other musical collaborators?
Which is why I peel away the layers of deception that obscure Raichel’s political goal. There is a sub-text to all that Raichel is doing here and everyone should be aware of it. There is more to music than notes or sound. It derives from a culture or society and if that society is corrupt the music may be as well. Beautiful music may still be tainted by a betrayal of basic human values. A great artist may still be an obtuse, unfeeling human being.
Finally, in full disclosure, I wrote a glowing post about Raichel back in 2007, before I understood his politics. For those who want to get a sense of his music give a listen here. Here is a video of his New York concert with Toure.