"Who lends his soul so you should be happy?/ Who lends his hand to build your house....?"
Idan Raichel does -- that's who.
Israel's latest world music pop sensation returns to Los Angeles next week with a concert to highlight his second album "From the Depths." The album and its eponymous song, excerpted above, allude to Psalm 31 in which one calls God from the depths. But here, Raichel calls out instead to his love.
Most of the songs on this album are about love, which may seem surprisingly standard for a musician who became a cultural force in Israel for giving voice to the Ethiopian community. But then, Raichel's themes and his emotive, well-written lyrics were not what most set him apart. It's been his sound -- a combination of Ethiopian and other "minority" influences that both respects musical diversity and sets it to a catchy, tuneful beat.
Raichel's first album, "The Idan Raichel Project" -- so named because of the 70 collaborators who worked with him -- featured Ethiopian singers in their native language, something rarely heard in mainstream Israeli circles, despite the 19,000 or so Ethiopian Jews in Israel.
"Ofra Haza did the Yemenite songs, and Teapacks did Moroccan music," Raichel told The Journal, referring to the popular singer and rock band that brought two other of Israel's minority groups into the music mainstream. "This was the first time that Ethiopian tradition became the mainstream music of Israel."
The doe-eyed, dreadlocked 28-year-old is not Ethiopian, far from it: Raichel's a typical Ashkenazi Israeli who grew up secular in Kfar Saba, 20 minutes from bustling Tel Aviv, to parents of Eastern European background. But his neighborhood was Yemenite, and he cultivated a taste for the Yemenite chants, which later opened up his ears and heart to other communities in Israel, namely the immigrants from Ethiopia and Curacao.
Raichel's musical taste was always eclectic. In the fifth grade he played waltzes and Israeli folk songs on his accordion. In high school he'd majored in music, adding pop and jazz to his repertoire. His army service was spent the the Education Corps' entertainment troupe, where he first encountered African roots music.
At the ripe old age of 23, after his army service, Raichel began mixing these sounds -- chants, poems, lyrics, voices -- and eventually landed his first album in 2002.
The final cut of his debut album primarily featured Ethiopian sounds -- instruments, singers and original Amharic lyrics and poems. It immediately shot to No. 1 and went triple platinum in Israel, selling more than 120,000 copies. Culturally, it highlighted the manifold but often forgotten and silent community of Ethiopians in Israel.
Raichel doesn't see himself as a champion for that particular group. Even though his music has instilled pride in Israeli Ethiopian teenagers who finally have some famous role models in Raichel and other members of the "Project" (two of his fellow performers were born in the hardscrabble settlement villages built for Ethiopian refugees). Even though some proceeds from his Nov. 18 concert at the Kodak Theater will help pay for the emigration of 20,000 Jews still in Ethiopia. This latter-day exodus is under the auspices of the United Jewish Communities.
"I don't feel like a spokesperson for Ethiopians," Raichel said, noting that his group would be happy to support lots of good causes. "What I'm dealing with is music. I'm not dealing with racism, or with politics, I'm just making music. This is what makes young Ethiopian teenagers from boarding school proud.... This is the answer for them."
While the Ethiopian sounds were prominent on Raichel's first album, it's not his only influence. "Actually the music that I'm doing is representing all the Israeli melting pot," Raichel said. And with his new album, he proves it. Although it still features some of the Amharic strands prevalent on the first album, "From the Depths" weaves in the sounds of Yemen and Curacao -- which come together like a Caribbean reggae.
"I think this is the real music of the streets of Israel. This is the real music of 2005. This is the real mainstream," Raichel said. "You can record pop songs or rock songs with a European or American influence," he said.
Some critics have faulted Raichel for being "inauthentic," or Ethiopia-lite, because of his Eastern European heritage and his popular sound. But the musical reality he's striving for is one that is simply Israeli in feel. What he's avoiding is Americanized Israeli pop: "Our challenge is to create music of the Israeli mainstream, of the Israeli truth -- the real music of the Israeli melting pot."
On "From the Depths" he tries to, opening with famous Yemenite Chantuese Shoshana Damari, a diva in her 80s who hasn't recorded in 20 years, singing the warbly "A Leaf in the Wind." The second song, "On Shabbat," begins with a Yemenite riff and an undulating Sephardic lyric, merging into a Caribbean chorus. Those songs seem more like world-music tributes, experiments in fusion, rather than songs that will hit the top of the pop charts in Israel.
It's only with the next songs, "Come to My House" and "I Still Have Strength in Me" that he transitions to the mind-sticking melodies and simple, sensual lyrics that radio stations adore.
"I have strength in me/ now when you left/ the moon smiled at me /shined its light through the window/And tonight I'm not scared anymore/ To be alone and dream/ and here it is you again/ you, who touches, you, who runs away...."
Sure there are Ethiopians rapping in the background or an oud or two between choruses in these songs, but for the most part, these are the sort of tunes on Israeli radio all the time and just the sort of subject matter: heartbreak. In the end, there is only one message, only one cause that Raichel cares to champion:
"At the end of the day we are all singing about love," he said. "It sounds great in Amharic, it sounds great in Hebrew and it sounds great in English: It's all about love."
The Idan Raichel Project and Keshet Chaim Dancers will be performing at the Kodak Theatre on Nov. 19. For more information or tickets contact www.kcdancers.org or (818) 986-7332.
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