The Idan Raichel Project is considered Israel's best known contemporary performing group. After releasing a third CD, Within My Walls, they went on a world tour to the United States and several European countries, performing at music festivals as well as private events for Jewish organizations.
They returned last week and performed at the Yom HaStudent -- the Student Day festival -- in Jerusalem's Independence Park. This year, the annual college event featured American Grammy Award winning singer Macy Gray as well as other Israeli performers.
Israel National Radio's Ben Bresky met with Idan Raichel backstage to discuss his philosophy about Israeli music and his new album.
Idan Raichel, a tall Israeli with long dreadlocks, shot into the music scene in 2002 with his groovy world beat songs that featured Ethiopian singing mixed with other ethnic sounds. He first discovered the Ethiopian sound while working with recent Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia in local schools.
Raichel says that he finds Israel to be a wonderful country. "I think that sometimes the community in Israel criticizes itself too much," he says. "We can be proud that in 2009 we have a very beautiful nation."
The songwriter and keyboard player often tells a story on stage of the time he went to Bnei Brak, a mostly religious hareidi city near Tel Aviv. Upon seeing Raichel, a young hasidic boy asked his father, "Abba, what is that?" To which the father replied "Ah, son, that man is so religious, look at how many payos he has!"
In regards to the story, Raichel comments, "The look of the dreadlocks is not very common in Bnei Brak and I was very happy that the Orthodox hassidic people were very welcoming. This is bottom line, no matter how funny the story was. Sometimes people think that the Orthodox communities live in a separate world."
Raichel says he has some family in Bnei Brak and also has roots in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood. "I think that Israel is one of the most interesting melting pots. We have religious communities mixed with secular communities, old and new. I think it's good."
The concept of diversity is evident on Within My Walls as well. It seamlessly mixes different styles into smooth, dreamy, radio friendly songs. Many guest musicians are featured singing in different languages.
On one track, Israeli Sephardic singer Shimon Buskila performs in Moroccan Arabic. Marta Gómez from Columbia sings several tracks in Spanish. A singer simply named Somi performs in Swahili. Other musicians, from both Israel and other countries are also featured. The Idan Raichel Project performs with about ten different people on stage. Raichel says he is honored by their presence.
As for the title of the new CD, Raichel says that the "walls" refers to the four walls of his home in Tel Aviv as well as the walls of the hotel rooms and backstage concert areas where they recorded many of the segments for the CD. "It's a huge international project that brings the voice of the Israeli community to the world, and also the voices of the world to Israel."
Some of the songs Raichel performs are based on the Psalms and other traditional Jewish sources. "The new secular generation of teenagers in Tel Aviv are surfing the internet more than reading Psalms," comments Raichel, "so it's important that some of the songs of the Project are influenced by the Biblical texts."
The Idan Raichel Project has several more dates in Israel before going to Italy and then back to America in August for several gigs in Seattle and Atlanta.
So what's the difference between playing in Israel and playing abroad? "In Israel we are doing Israeli music. You can hear it on the mainstream radio," explains Raichel. "Outside Israel they define this as world music because we will always be foreigners. For us this is the main challenge, to get the audience to even come and be open minded to listen to the beauty of the Israeli multi-cultural sound. Israel is a multi-cultural country."
For more information visit http://www.idanraichelproject.com.
Ben Bresky is a music critic and host of the Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast on Arutz Sheva - Israel National Radio.com. His blog and podcast archives can be found by clicking here.
Walter Bingham, host of Israel National Radio's Walter's World contributed to this article.