MANY a "world music" proponent thinks it a pretty rad proposition to mix one or two culturally diverse elements - say African tribal folk with acoustic blues, or Latin jazz with a touch of techno.
Idan Raichel takes it a whole lot further, mashing up a super-rich stew of cultures and traditions - Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Latin America, European and African - in a wondrously unexpected, richly rhythmic and mellifluous way. Then he casually characterizes such derring-do as "the natural order of things, just a reflection of the street life I encounter on a daily basis."
Israel-born and based, though now a citizen of the concert-hall world, Raichel says that his sweet and spicy melting pot of music reflects on his country's long standing "open door to immigrants from Jewish communities around the globe."
His multi-cultural, multi-generation ten-piece Idan Raichel Project, landing Thursday at the Merriam Theater, also serves as a gentle retort to the tensions and intolerance that keep some Israelis in a constant state of duress with ethnically diverse neighbors both within the country and across its borders.
This now 36-year-old keyboardist, composer and bandleader has no problem working with Palestinian or Arab musicians, with Yemenites or dark-skinned Ethiopians - the "lost tribe of Israel."
He's also ready and rarin' to sonically connect the dots of immigrant Ashkenazi Jews back to their Russian and Eastern European roots, to trace the culture of Sephardic Jews back to Spain and North Africa.
And he's been quick to defend his cause when, say, ultra-Orthodox traditionalists have blasted his "blasphemous" use of women singers to perform songs based on spiritual/romantic texts from the Old Testament's Song of Solomon or Book of Jeremiah. "Fortunately, I've gotten a lot of support from rabbis and cantors all over the world," he adds, with a laugh.
Raichel said that he was raised by liberal-minded parents to appreciate all kinds of music, then really started acting on his culturally unifying mission after his obligatory two years in the Israeli army, "luckily serving as the music director of an army band."
For his first post-service job, a then 21-year-old Raichel became a guidance counselor at a boarding school for immigrant youth in a small village. "They had three groups of students, one from the former USSR, one of immigrants from Addis Ababa refugee camps and the third a group from another part of Ethiopia. And I realized they weren't integrating together. So I got them sharing and making music together, also bringing in people from the neighborhood, to record in their native languages and with instruments from back home."
After much resistance in the music marketplace, radio stations got hooked on a Raichel Project piece called "Bo'ee," featuring a global-fusion sound and haunting chorus in the Ethiopian language of Amharic. It jumped to the top of the nation's pop charts.
On disc and in concert, the long dreadlocked though newly hair-shorn Raichel feels no need to have his singers perform in the local language. "I do a little explanation between songs" (here, in English) "but you don't need to understand the lyrics to understand the vibes. I grew up listening to Edith Piaf without speaking French, to Mercedes Sosa without speaking Spanish. The most amazing world-music artists bring the soundtracks of the place they came from to life, without the need for translation."
Raichel also has collaborated in super side projects with the Malian guitarist Viex Farka Toure and the American neo-soul chanteuse India.Arie - the latter for a touring song cycle (his tunes, her words) called "Open Door." The pair presented excerpts at the White House for President Obama, at the dedication ceremony for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, and at a Nobel Peace Prize gala in Oslo, Norway. "We haven't yet found a musical backer willing to record us and put out an album, but we're still hopeful," Raichel said. "It's beautiful work."
Want to taste the rare and exotic sonic treats of the Idan Raichel Project? Email irpgift@ gmail.com for a free download of five songs.