There's an old adage that the overnight sensation took years to get there. It's certainly a sentiment that can be applied to 27-year-old Israeli music sensation Idan Raichel.
His debut album, "The Idan Raichel Project," shot straight to No. 1 upon its release in December 2002, going on to win Israeli Artist, Song and Album of the Year. The album itself went multiplatinum. Yet the so-called "unknown" Raichel who, according to the Israeli press "emerged from nowhere," had paid his dues for many years. He started as a young boy with an accordion he discovered in his grandfather's house, studied jazz piano in high school, served in the entertainment corps during his army service and working as a session musician -- before focusing on Ethiopian music and hitting the proverbial "big time."
Born in Kfar Saba to Ethiopian parents, Raichel is a multitalented musician who is equally at home playing a variety of musical instruments, composing, producing and arranging music. But it's his unique style -- an eclectic mix of what he terms the "melting pot" of Israeli culture that has seen his music embraced both in Israel and overseas. A funky fusion of Western and a plethora of Middle Eastern music with a strong Ethiopian flavor, it's impossible to pigeonhole Raichel, which might explain why his music has struck such a chord with so many.
As a result of his unprecedented success, and to coincide with the release of his second album, "Out of the Depths," the Idan Raichel Project is currently on a whistle-stop 16-city tour of the United States, thanks to sponsorship by Israel's Foreign Ministry. The Project will be playing at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles on Feb. 12.
It's also no coincidence that the Project's touring dates coincide with Black History Month. And while Raichel is the first to admit he's not black, his Ethiopian roots and his funky dreadlocks will certainly show a different side of Israeli culture to many North Americans, and Raichel wouldn't have it any other way.
So what's the secret to his success?
Speaking by phone from New York the night before his second concert, Raichel said, "I think it's because everybody in the streets can find himself in the Project, because it represents the culture of Israel -- the Israel in 2005."
He's referring to his unique trademark of using unknown singers and musicians from different backgrounds on his albums -- Moroccan, Ethiopian, Yemenite, Ashkenazi or Russian -- hence the choice of the term "project." "There is a new wave of immigration in Israel every 10 years and we represent all these merging cultures in the Project," Raichel said.
He goes on to explain that is why there is a different singer and musician on every single track of his CDs, because "you can find your own culture in every piece."
Indeed there are 17 separate performers on the Project's first CD, seven of whom are accompanying Raichel on tour.
On his first album, the emphasis was on mainly Ethiopian and Hebrew music, with a vast array of prayers and hymns -- "because I was writing about my background," Raichel said. The second album has an even more eclectic bag, combining Indian, Caribbean and African beats to the mix and more prayers.
"There are three Yemenite synagogues in my neighborhood," said Raichel, adding that it's natural for him to include more hymns on his second album.
But of course what makes the Idan Raichel Project unique is that it has such worldwide appeal.
"I think it's because it brings the truth of Israel to the rest of the world," Raichel said. When it comes to world music, he explained, "You have to bring the truth of your place to that music."
He cited the Buena Vista Social Club and Paul Simon with Ladysmith Black Mombassa as just two examples in which the cultural roots of a people (Cuban and African) were embraced by mainstream America.
"That's why a lot of tourists in Israel buy our CDs" he said.
In the meantime, Raichel said the group's first North American performance in Toronto went extremely well.
"The crowd was so warm and open-minded," he enthused. "It's like getting a huge hug from so many people."
And although he's already received that type of adulation in Israel, Raichel said this is different because "the non-Hebrew speakers really enjoy it, too, which means the music is talking by itself."
However, he does admit that in Israel, too ,there are plenty of people who don't understand the Arabic or Amharic or Ethiopian dialects that punctuate his songs. "But," he said, simply, "even if you don't understand the words the singers are singing, you can still feel the vibes."
Even more exciting for Raichel during his American tour is his opportunity to be an Israeli ambassador.
"Israel is not only politics, Israel has a really interesting culture," he said. "These days, the third generation of those Israelis that built our country -- the Moroccans, Ethiopians and Russians -- are now cooperating as one in determining Israeli culture. I only hope the audiences will be as excited to hear our [cultural collaborations] as we are to create them."
The Idan Raichel Project will play the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles on Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. For tickets ($35-$60), call (818) 986-7332, (818) 980-9848 or (323) 951-0111.
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