Ethiopian-Israeli Pop Music

Ethiopian-inspired music has hit the big time in Israel.

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Adchanani introduced him to Sergio Brahms, a Curaçao-born musician who sings the sometimes swaying, sometimes stomping, Caribbean "Brong Faya" on "The Idan Raichel Project," and plays the electric guitar on the traditional Ethiopian track "Ayal Ayale." Zamanwit Zoë Gadmu, the Ethiopian vocalist in "Ayal Ayale," was also introduced to Raichel by Adchanani, who contributed to the album as well. Adchanani and Raichel come together on "Thou Art Fair," a track that weaves Raichel’s soft piano playing and almost prayerful voice with Adchanani’s spiritual chanting. The words, which Raichel says were inspired in large part by the third chapter of Solomon’s Song of Songs, describe a man waiting for a woman to come to him "from the desert, from a faraway land, on the wings of a big bird. To my home."

Raichel’s affinity for Jewish texts runs throughout the album. During the early period of recording, he began to show up at the Ethiopian synagogue near his home. "And then one time I joined them on Sigd, a mid-winter celebration they mark by making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem."

Their prayers moved him to devote the first track of the album to a prayer service that includes a New Year’s blessing and the Sheheheyanu benediction, which is recited when marking a special event. "It’s to mark the first song," says Raichel, who asserts that neither he nor his family are religiously observant, but that he does enjoy reading the Hebrew Bible. The final song on the disc, "Time to Live, Time to Die," is a cello- and chant-backed rendition from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, translated into Amharic, and spoken, in a reserved yet powerful tone, by Mimi Yosef, the gas-station attendant.

Yet for all of the album’s multiculturalism, a cause to which Raichel seems genuinely dedicated, the record company’s PR consultant, Sharon Malin, would not make it possible for The Report to speak with any of the contributing artists on the album. The soft-spoken and unassuming Raichel was willing, after some nudging, to give out phone numbers of contributing musicians, but Malin was adamant. "It’s simply a conceptual thing," Malin said. "We want him to be at the center of attention and I’m not willing to have that diverted." Nothing--not even claims that such an attitude marginalizes the performers that actually stand at the heart of the album’s success--could sway her.

The name of the album also hardly seems to distribute the credit equitably. When asked about naming the album "The Idan Raichel Project," a far stretch from, for instance, Gronich’s more generous "Shlomo Gronich and the Sheba Youth Choir," Raichel grows defensive for the first and only time. "What else would you call it?" he asks.

Then he quickly relaxes. "Look, it’s not a 30-person band; it’s me working with 30 different individuals"--all of whom are credited and thanked, as well as pictured, in some cases, on the album. "It’s also not an Ethiopian album. Some of the reviews of the album said it was the worst Ethiopian album of the year; it’s also the worst Hungarian album of the year, because it is neither of those. It’s a project, the Idan Raichel Project.".

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Mitchell Ginsberg is a staff writer for the Jerusalem Post.