Performers show American audiences a different side of Israel

Idan Raichel: I hope to give the Americans a window into the mixed culture here.Over the past year, Americans have had a unique opportunity to appreciate the rich and dynamic culture of Israel by seeing that culture live on stage. …

Idan Raichel: I hope to give the Americans a window into the mixed culture here.Over the past year, Americans have had a unique opportunity to appreciate the rich and dynamic culture of Israel by seeing that culture live on stage. From the acclaimed modern dance troupe the Batsheva Dance Company to the cutting-edge Gesher Theater to the hip-hop group Hadag Nahash, all segments of Israel’s cultural scene have made their way across the Atlantic and taken to U.S. stages.

And next month, the Idan Raichel Project, a melodious mix of Ethiopian and Hebrew music, will offer the North American university crowd a diverse taste of Israeli culture.

This stream of visits has been no accident and no coincidence. It’s a concerted effort by the artists – together with an initiative by Israel’s Foreign Ministry which is taking a more active role in sponsoring cultural visits, particularly when it comes to the younger, hipper Israeli talent.

“It is important for us to try and widen the angle at which Americans look at Israel. We want young Americans, the leaders of the next generation, to see Israel beyond the conflict,” says Amir Gissin, director of the public affairs department at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “One of the ways we think we can do that is through exposure of Israeli habits, culture, and young life – to actually show them that Israelis enjoy a cultural life relevant to their own.”

In October 2004, Hebrew hip-hop stars Hadag Nahash performed at clubs and college campuses in Canada and the US. “It was a very successful tour. Everywhere we went there were tons of people,” Shaanan Streett, lead singer of Hadag Nahash, told ISRAEL21c upon his return to Israel. “It was a little weird to perform in front of a crowd that doesn’t speak Hebrew but by the third song you get used to it.”

“We have found that bringing Israeli musicians to the United States is an exciting and effective way of engaging students, said Aviva Raz Schechter, Minister-Counselor at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC.

“It provides us with the opportunity to highlight Israel’s cultural achievements and to show that Israel is more than just a conflict. Many American students are tired of debating about the Arab-Israeli conflict; music serves as a great way of connecting Jewish and non-Jewish young people with the country. We are particularly excited to be hosting Idan Raichel, who is not only a wonderful performer but also an example of the diverse society of which Israel is so proud,” Schechter told ISRAEL21c.

Group leader Raichel is considered among the top artists working today in Israel. His music evokes the sounds and colors of Israeli society.

“I combine forces with people who are proficient in all styles of music. My goal is to bring new music that people don’t recognize,” he told The Jerusalem Post.

Raichel’s musical interests have always been alternative. He was introduced to music in fifth grade when he learned to play the accordion. Well-versed in waltzes and folk tunes, it wasn’t until high school that Raichel heard the music of Madonna, Pearl Jam or Miles Davis. “That was the beginning of my interest in ethnic music,” said Raichel, the second oldest of four boys.

During his mandatory army service, Raichel served in the entertainment troupe. In 1998, he taught music to students at the Hadassim boarding school – and here picked up his obsession for Ethiopian tunes. Many of the students at Hadassim are Ethiopian immigrants.

Raichel is more a composer and arranger than vocalist. In fact, he sings just one song (“Hinech Yafa”) on his highly acclaimed 2002 breakout album, The Idan Raichel Project. As such, he tours with at least five others including vocalists and backup musicians.

“I never planned on doing shows,” Raichel told The Jerusalem Post two years ago when he was promoting his debut work. “But there was a demand for them so I put together a group of people and now we tour around.”
His upcoming concert tour is based on his first album and his follow-up project, which has yet to be named.

Raichel’s visit to North America coincides with Black History Month, and Israel’s most popular dread-locked musician will try and give the African-American population there a new perspective on what this country is all about.

“I’m not going to lecture and tell people what they should or should not do. I hope to give the Americans a window into the mixed culture here. I’m not black, yet the Ethiopians in the project and I work together. We succeed through music in intercommunication, whereas in Israeli society there are often reported differences between our two communities.”

Raichel is not considered an official ‘hasbara’ emissary, charged with improving Israel’s image.

“The music The Idan Raichel Project does, the young and refreshing messages in their music, this is what we want to get out. Their job is to bring Israel as it is right now,” says Gissin.

Raichel says he hopes his music will appeal to more than just the black community in the US. “I don’t play to just one community. I hope my music will appeal to the black community but I do music for the greater population. I’m don’t fit into a specific genre like jazz or reggae or R&B. We’ll see if my music is accepted.”

Streett, who has paved the way for Raichel, says there were a surprising number of people who came out to hear Israeli music. “Our shows were 60% Jewish, 20% Israeli and 20% everything else. Almost all of our shows were sold-out,” he said. “There’s an audience for world hip hop and world music. Personally, I listen to rap in German and Greek, there’s more to it than just the lyrics. I think the Idan Raichel Project is great music, great stuff. I’m sure people will enjoy his concerts.”

Gissin notes Israeli officials were surprised to see the mix of people coming out to Hadag Nahash’s concerts – thinking at first only expatriate Israelis would show up.

“Our consulates were surprised to see the number of Jewish students looking to connect to current waves in Israeli music. The young Jews in North America are important for North American Jewish communities. There were also many African Americans who came out to the concerts to hear what we have to offer. We reach many groups we wouldn’t necessary reach.”

He continues: “It’s not that after a Hadag Nahash concert a non-Jewish student will go out and say, ‘now I support Israel’. This is not what we’re hoping for. But rather we’re hoping they’ll say, ‘look they do good music in Israel. It’s not just about politics, but the music is good there too.”

Gissin hinted that rapper Subliminal and fellow rappers who make up the TACT group, who are said to be planning a tour to the US and Canada, might be next on the Foreign Ministry’s sponsorship list.

When people come to Israel to visit, says Raichel, they’re “not coming to see the politics here. They come to taste our culture, not only Ethiopian but also Yemenite and Moroccan and Ashkenazi. From abroad they only get a window into our politics, so we’re going to give them a taste of something else.”

About Viva Sarah Press

Viva Sarah Press is an associate editor and writer at ISRAEL21c. She has extensive experience in reporting/editing in the print, online and broadcast fields. She has jumped out of a plane, ducked rockets and been attacked by a baboon all in the name of a good story. Her work has been published by international media outlets including Israel Television, CNN, Reuters, The Jerusalem Post and Time Out.