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Conversation with… Idan Raichel

Idan Raichel

Idan Raichel

Israeli musician to perform at UMass Oct. 29

By Mara Dresner

In 2003, an unusual song began airing on Israeli’s popular radio stations. With its haunting chorus in the Ethiopian language of Amharic and an exotic, global fusion sound, “Bo’ee” became an instant hit that catapulted The Idan Raichel Project to the top of Israel’s pop charts.

The Idan Raichel Project will bring its acclaimed live concert experience to the UMass Fine Arts Center Concert Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 29th at 7:30 p.m. as part of its United States 16-city tour.

Idan Raichel, the architect of this unique project, is a keyboardist, producer and composer from Kfar Saba, a city near Tel Aviv. Raichel 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.

Following his army service, Raichel became a successful backup musician and recording session player for some of Israel’s most popular singers. After a few years of helping others gain success, he decided it was time to pursue a project that reflected his musical ideals, and he began working on a demo recording in a small studio he set up in the basement of his parent’s home in Kfar Saba. He invited a number of different singers and musicians to participate, in order to demonstrate his distinct styles and the ways in which he worked with a variety of artists.

With 70 friends and colleagues from Israel’s diverse music scene, he created the core songs of his first album as a demo, and began shopping for a record label to help him produce a full album of his own. Helicon Records heard the potential in Raichel’s work and quickly signed him on to the roster. The subsequent album was an immediate hit.

As the interest in the recording began to grow, demand for live shows increased, including an offer from the prestigious Opera House of Tel Aviv. Given the number of musicians who participated in the recordings, it would have been impossible to have them all appear on stage, so Raichel decided to pick a core group of performers in addition to himself who were both versatile and strong individual artists in their own right.

From the beginning, Raichel saw the project as a collaboration between artists who each bring their own musical culture and talents to the stage. “There would be no front man,” Raichel says. “I would sit at the side and watch things and see what occurs. Every song would have a different singer, we would sit in a half circle and each musician would have a chance to demonstrate what they have to offer.”

This sentiment is reflected in the decision to name the collective The Idan Raichel Project. Says Raichel, “If I had called the album just ‘Idan Raichel,’ people would have thought that [I am] the main voice on all the songs. I wrote the songs and I arranged and produced them, but I perform them together with other vocalists and musicians. On the other hand, we are not a group. It’s something in between.”

The Idan Raichel Project has released four studio albums and a three-CD collection of live recordings in Israel on the Helicon label. In 2006, the U.S.-based record label Cumbancha released a compilation of the group’s first two albums worldwide.

In 2009 The Idan Raichel Project released Within My Walls. Much of the album was recorded while Raichel was on tour, during recording sessions in hotel rooms, backstage dressing areas, private homes and other impromptu settings.

The Idan Raichel Project has headlined in some of the world’s most prestigious venues, including New York’s Central Park Summer Stage, Apollo Theater and Radio City Music Hall; Los Angeles’ Kodak Theater; the Sydney Opera House; Zenith and Bataclan in Paris; and London’s Royal Albert, performing across Europe, South and Central America, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Ethiopia, South Africa, Ghana and dozens of other countries.

In 2012, Shimon Peres, the president of Israel and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, asked Raichel to compose music for a poem Peres had written in dedication to Israel’s Ethiopian community. The song, “The Eyes of Beta Israel,” was performed in front of 3,000 people during a high-profile concert in Jerusalem.

Raichel has also worked closely with Grammy winner India.Arie on their joint project Open Door. They have been frequent collaborators since they met in 2008 when she was visiting Israel, including touring the U.S. together in 2011.

The Idan Raichel Project’s latest album, Quarter to Six, was released in 2013. In just the first two months after it was released, Quarter to Six reached double-platinum sales status in Israel, selling more than 80,000 copies.

Raichel and the Project performed at a private concert for President Barack Obama during his official visit to Israel in March. In July, world-renowned pop star Alicia Keys invited Raichel on stage for a special duet during her sold-out concert at Nokia Stadium in Tel Aviv. In September, popular Israeli entertainment magazine Pnai Plus selected Raichel as “Man of the Year” and the song “Ba’Layla (At Night)” from The Idan Raichel Project’s latest album was honored as “Song of the Year.”


Q. How did you come to start playing the accordion when you were 9 years old?

A. It came about [because of my] grandfather. … Once I began to play the accordion, I was exposed to different artists all over the world. The accordion sounds different when it’s Carnival in Brazil; it sounds different when it’s tango in Argentina. … I think the accordion is the ultimate instrument for world music.


Q. How did your interest in music evolve?

A. Around my high school days, I started playing piano, jazz music. … I just fell in love with Louis Armstrong, with Duke Ellington, to the hardcore bebop. It was the main influence of jazz music to be able to improvise live on stage with a bunch of musicians, even today on the road. I added the mix of the music of the piano to the world music of accordion.


Q. How did your military service affect your music?

A. When I joined the Israeli army to serve my country – there’s mandatory service in Israel for three years – I was lucky to serve in the army band. I played for the soldiers all the time. It was an important experience to serve my country.

Music-wise, soldiers are the most honest audience after kids. If you’re not that good, you’re practically wasting their time. You just need to be more professional, to give everything on stage even if you’re playing a random army base, even if it’s just a few tents and no electricity. The most important thing in a concert … is what you’re giving to an audience and what an audience takes out of the concert.


Q. How did you start developing your own music?

A. I was able to start work on my third album while I was working on my second album; and was working on my second album from when I was working on my first album. My first album [started on] the day I was born. It’s all my experiences in my family, the city I grew up in. It’s not that I can point to something that made it all happen. It’s a mix of all my experiences, the accordion, the piano, the army to boarding school — everything led to my first album.


Q. How would you describe The Idan Raichel Project?

A. I would describe it as Israeli music. I would like people to look at it as a soundtrack for Israel. … It would be a vast compliment to be remembered as the soundtrack of Israel for the past decade. …

[I’ve worked with] many musicians from all over the world, whether professional or not; I’ve worked with over 95 musicians – the youngest is 16, and the eldest are 83 and 91. There are many immigrants, from Brazil, Morocco, Ethiopia, Germany. There are many, many musicians, just a great number … coming to Israel to record. … We are making some interesting new stories, new music, a new sound that defines the multicultural nation we live in, in Tel Aviv. In the streets in Tel Aviv, you find immigrants from all over the world. We bring the voices of minorities into Israel mainstream radio.


Q. Tell me about your new CD.

A. [It’s called] Quarter to Six; it’s named after the hour, 5:45 p.m. It’s a beautiful few minutes in the day in Tel Aviv. You can really feel the transition in the day. It’s about to become evening. There’s something about how the light and atmosphere changes. It always feels like a crossroad in life: what happens to now, what will be from now on. I feel like my life is in a crossroad now. After 10 years in the project, having a new baby with my woman, I’m in kind of a transition, a crossroad. I feel everything changes at quarter of six, the hour of the day, the junction in life.


Q. What do you want audiences to walk away with after one of your shows?

A. If they come out of a concert and they have to buy a ticket and go to Israel, if they come to Israel, … come to the Middle East, that would be the biggest compliment.


For tickets, call 1-800-999-UMAS or (413) 545-2511 or go online to http://www.fineartscenter.com/

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