The journey of the dreadlocked Idan Raichel, in his early twenties, composing music on his synthesizers from his parents’ Tel Aviv basement, to Idan Raichel’s Project, is a classic tale of how success follows determination and vision. From small gigs to the international stage within a relatively very short period.
Just a glimpse into his popularity worldwide the number of “hits” on YouTube is around the 262 million mark as of June 2020.
Idan’s eyes are filled with warmth and a hint of a gentle smile. His coiffure of long dreadlocks, turbans of modified shapes and varying hues of black and dark blue to a shaven head, have been his external trait.
Born, in Israel in 1977, to parents who had no musical aspirations for their son. At the age of nine, Idan was introduced to his first musical instrument – the accordion. An instrument that lends itself to a wide repertoire of popular musical genres – traditional, ethnic and folk music. ’It’s the first instrument that opened my ear to music from all over the world; from the French waltz to Argentine tango, Tarantella and Italian music, up to Israeli Hora music.’
Idan Raichel, a master of fusing music from different cultures and traditions – from gypsy folklore to Ethiopian traditional music – set up the Idan Raichel Project in 2002. The Idan Raichel Project encompasses his musical vision as a writer, composer and producer. The driving force, apart from his passion for music, is to drive a message of love and tolerance. He blends sounds of African, Latin American, Caribbean and Middle Eastern roots using sophisticated production techniques in large venues. His appeal is universal.
The Idan Raichel project hinges on the participation of musicians and singers from different backgrounds, but he specifically targets Ethiopian music to enhance his distinct style.
The following Q&A was communicated via WhatsApp, due to COVID -19
Raichel explains that he gets his inspiration for the lyrics from a thought or even from a short melody. ‘A song is born from a spark, some sentence that comes to mind, some thought, or even a tune or a musical phrase. There isn’t a single way through which I compose or write. I also don’t plan a daily structured time to write, on the contrary, I abide by inspiration. Usually, the source of inspiration is personal stories, human stories, a conversation with someone. I always keep the heart, eyes, the ears open to everything that the world presents.’
He explains that his music evolved and changed over the years, along the lines of his maturity. ‘As a teenager, I wrote songs from the point of view of a teenager, later as a bachelor in Tel-Aviv and now as a father’. He adds that cynicism creeps in, with the passing years and there is no ignoring the impact of musical influences that are constant. ‘My music reflects the soundtrack of my life.’ He says with a smile.
Raichel was challenged that his recent music seeks mainstream pop music rather than the music that distinguished him from other singers – all incorporating ethnic music.
‘Dividing music into genres is always somewhat detrimental to the musician.’ He explains. ‘If for example, we define Bono from U2 as a rock and pop singer, it’s possible that we are doing him wrong, because we immediately block the possibility to enjoy classical music that he might write, or perhaps he’ll suddenly want to make an album of Irish folk songs… I think that the division into genres, on the whole, does not do justice to the artist nor to the fans who are missing out on other expressions of the same artist.
Raichel’s ability to move with ease, during his concerts, from playing one instrument to another, inspired admiration and aspiration. Yet, he admits that his lack of classical music training leaves a gap that limits his creative musical scope for which he compensates by exploring non-virtuoso
During the COVID-19 one is aware of spare time, but even in days free of lockdowns Raichel listens to albums that have been with him for many years. ‘Whether it be Ali Farka Touré, who made a wonderful album with Ry Cooder called Talking Timbuktu or a beautiful album by Bob Dylan called Slow Train Coming, songs by Naomi Shemer and Israeli folk. Sometimes I listen to playlists by Apple or Spotify to update myself on what is going on, and if something appeals to me, I follow the artist himself.’
The impact of Italian music on Raichel’s is clear. He explains that ‘Italian music very much reminds me of the passion of Israeli music. Italian people have the same human warmth: you always feel at home. When they’re angry, they’re very angry, when they love, they love a lot, when they laugh, they laugh a lot. I love visiting Italy: Rome, Milan, the North, the South… And the music itself reflects the Italian experience. I had the great honour to work with Mina and Celentano on the song “Amami, Amami”, and also with the wonderful Ornella Vanoni. I think that experience will be with me for the rest of my life’.
Despite international success, Raichel still finds creating a new song exciting. He is humbled and moved by the fact that some of his songs are the soundtrack of other people’s lives. Raichel’s songs are used in weddings, funerals and are even taught at some schools. It is the lyrics that appeal to many. The music is the vehicle. ‘When a song is played during a wedding or a funeral or presented and taught to children at school’ he explains, ‘then the music is already more than the song that you wrote, it’s almost not yours anymore. Even if you leave the world, the music stays in the lives of others, as the soundtrack to other people’s lives.’
Raichel is genuinely touched by the appeal his lyrics have on fans. Currently, some of his songs are taught at schools in Kefar Saba, his place of birth, alongside highly esteemed literary poetry, such as poems by Israel’s National poet Bialik, and the poetess Rachel. He has no illusions that his lyrics are on par with literary writings. Yet, he understands the appeal his songs have, in particular on the young and the need to bridge between high literature and the Hebrew language of a few generations ago. ‘It’s very exciting to be a link in the chain’ he says, referring to High literature and modern lyrics. He is rather impressed by the teachers’ willingness to relate to his lyrics and songs and include some of them in the syllabus.
‘ I don’t think that my poetry is equal in its depths and heights to the giants of Hebrew poetry like Rahel the Poetess and Bialik, but it’s possible that through my work, as a link in the chain, they will come to fall in love with writing, and it will make them wonder where things started.’
I have no dreams, but challenges
One may wonder whether very successful artists have unfulfilled dreams. Raichel is clear he does not chase after dreams. There are challenges which are not dreams, he explains. ‘I tell myself “I have to make it happen; I have to make it happen”. Every time there is something I want to do; I work for it. It can be to study software or to be independent as a musician. Once I had the dream to take a caravan and travel with the family, turning off the phones. It can be to learn to cook or to learn to dance. It can be simply to enjoy being with the family, in four walls. I think that everything that happens in our lives, even in the days of Corona, we can see it as a challenge, and not as a crisis.’
He finds it impossible to pick one favourite track of his songs, yet, when pushed he says that during this period when the world has been affected by the pandemic of COVID-19 his song Lifney She’Yigamer (Before It Comes to an End), seems the most appropriate. The words “from all the moments in time, to find one to hold on to, to say we have arrived’ is a reminder that ‘we don’t need to run all the time. We can stay within four walls and find beautiful meaning in family life, in creativity, maybe in work from home or spend time with our own thoughts. We can now ponder, where were we running to before?’
There is a moment of soberness and reflections where questions such as where and why we are constantly running from what we have and where we spend hours on the phone, dreaming of being somewhere else, and even if we don’t dream, we are on Instagram looking at other places or on Facebook looking at other people’s lives. So, during this period with the lockdown, we can say that we have arrived, to find one to hold on to, to say that we have arrived’.
His advice whatever you chose to do, enjoy the journey you take to fulfil your dreams or challenges. His life experience taught him that when you find one door shut, there is always another one open. Don’t see it as an obstacle, see it as a challenge.
Here is a translation to the lyric of the song Lifney She’Yigamer (Before It Comes to an End),
Be not afraid to fall in love
That the heart will break
Be not afraid to lose along the way
To get up every morning
And to go out into the world
And to try everything before it all ends
To search from whence we came
And in the end always to return to the beginning
To find yet more beauty in everything
And to dance until overcome by exhaustion
Of all the moments in time
To find one to hold onto
To say that we have arrived
Always to remember to stop for a moment
To give thanks for what we have, and from whence we came
To hug her at night
When she falls asleep
Then the whole world calms down
To breathe her in deeply
To know that always
I will be there for her
*The Idan Raichel Project
*Cabra Casay, born in a refugee camp in Sudan in 1982 to Ethiopian Jewish parents, who emigrated to Israel in 1983. She is known for her use of Arab and Ethiopian vocal techniques such as ululation
My thanks to Keffi Zur Wyse and Clémence Robert for transcribing the audio interview.