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Out of Africa: Middle East meets West

Idan Raichel is the Israeli pop star who made waves with his 2006 recording The Idan Raichel Project. He has followed up with subsequent recordings that Amazon has collected here. Commenting in the New York Times on Idan’s original recording, Jon Pareles perfectly captured my reaction:

The Idan Raichel Project was a huge hit in Israel for good reason: it envisions a modern, multicultural nation where voices of young and old, Ethiopian and Yemenite, are all heard in songs devoted to love and tolerance. Idan Raichel is the keyboardist, songwriter and producer behind the scenes, and he’s clearly as familiar with Peter Gabriel as with Middle Eastern traditions. His arrangements bind the voices together in somber minor-mode anthems paced by electronic beats, earnestly seeking to uplift.

Thanks to the efforts of tour host Fern Oppenheim, who apparently provided some romantic advice to Idan at a crucial moment in his life, Idan joined our group on the Tel Aviv beachfront boardwalk during the 2007 bloggers’ tour of Israel that she led. I was slightly happy to make his acquaintance.

Last night Idan came to town to perform at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis for a sold-out show featuring Malian guitar virtuoso Vieux Farka Toure. Jim Fusilli recently recounted the story behind the collaboration that led to The Tel Aviv Session, their new recording:

When Israeli pop superstar Idan Raichel ran into Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure in a Berlin airport in 2008, it was as if a destiny were fulfilled. A gifted pianist, Mr. Raichel is a proponent of African music and an admirer of Mr. Toure as well as Mr. Toure’s father, the late Ali Farka Toure. At the time, the younger Mr. Toure was entering the global marketplace via his self-titled debut album. The two men pledged to play together.

Two years later, they did: Mr. Raichel joined Mr. Toure’s band on stage at the Tel Aviv Opera House; the next day, they gathered in a nearby recording studio and made what became “The Tel Aviv Session” (Cumbancha), the just-released disc by the Toure-Raichel Collective. Culled from a lengthy jam session that also included Israeli bassist Yossi Fine, who produced Mr. Touré’s second solo album, and Malian percussionist Souleymane Kane, the deeply affecting, at times hypnotic album rises from simmering grooves enriched by Mr. Toure’s stinging solos on acoustic and electric guitars and Mr. Raichel’s cascading piano. It’s not so much a cross-cultural exercise as an exploration of common ground.

John and I and my wife went to see the foursome perform last night. Before the show I tracked Idan down and asked him if he remembered meeting our group in Tel Aviv. He remembered it warmly. I told Idan that I had been unable to find a review of the show from his current tour and said I wanted to write about it. He thought that was a good idea. So here it is.

The show is spectacular. I don’t know jazz well, but to my ears Idan’s work on acoustic piano recalled that of Keith Jarrett vintage 1967, when he was backing Charles Lloyd, and Toure’s work on accoustic guitar recalled that of John McClaughlin vintage 1971, with its melodic beauty and lightning runs. The four musicians of the collective made incredibly beautiful music together during the two-hour set. I thought the music evoked something spiritual and ecstatic, though there was nothing abstract about it. Idan and Toure have deepened and perfected the dialogue that they started on their recording.

The Web site of the group is here. It shows that they are headed to Platteville, Wisconsin (tonight), Chicago (Thursday) and points west. If you see them, I am confident you will thank me for sending you in their direction. Idan sent me off with a copy of Traveling Home, a three-CD set that is his latest with the Idan Raichel Project. He urged us to check it out. (Thanks to Yeara for the photo.)

JOHN adds: The concert was indeed fun. “Hypnotic” is an apt description of the music, but it doesn’t fully convey how melodic the playing was. I don’t know whether there is any recording that equals what we heard last night, but I will try to track one down. The concert was excellent in a number of ways, but Raichel’s piano playing deserves mention, in part because he did everything imaginable with the instrument. In addition to playing in the normal fashion, which he did beautifully, Raichel would occasionally hold keys down with his left hand and strum the strings like a guitar, bang the wallboard against the front of the piano for percussion, and otherwise extract sounds from the instrument that I had never heard before. Our photos were taken in very low light with cell phone cameras so they aren’t great, but here is one more in which I am sort of visible on the left along with Idan and Scott:

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