Idan Raichel has begun to believe in the impossible. Speaking by phone from Tucson, Ariz., on the first day of a month-long international tour, the singer, songwriter and pianist is amazed at how far he has come from the small town outside Tel Aviv where he grew up.
“It doesn’t even make sense,” Raichel says after reeling off a list of his collaborators and appearances over the past nine years.
In that time, the Idan Raichel Project has recorded music mostly written and produced by Raichel, 36, and performed by nearly 100 singers and instrumentalists. He marvels at recording a 91-year-old cantor for the first time and bringing back to the stage 86-year-old Israeli-Yemenite singer Shoshona Damari after a 25-year hiatus.
IRP has also introduced to mainstream Israeli radio what he calls the “voices of minorities” — his compatriots with Middle Eastern, African, Latin American and Mediterranean roots.
“The Idan Raichel Project is the soundtrack of Israel the way I want it to be and the way I see it right now,” he says.
This approach has not only made him one of the most popular artists in Israel, but has led to gigs as diverse as performing for orphans in India and for President Obama at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. This, Raichel says, has led him “to know that probably everything is possible.”
His appealing ideals aside, Raichel hooks listeners with his calm, gentle voice and songs that induce something like a pleasant melancholy.
“We don’t try to sing in a very naïve way about peace and ignore the reality that we live in,” he says. “We are trying to bring the artists to the studio to play together. No matter if the members have a heavy disagreement about politics, they leave everything aside when they go on stage and they go into the studio.”
On IRP’s most recent album, Quarter to Six, a Portuguese fado singer joins Raichel on the heart-rending duet Deus Sabe (God Knows), about yearning for a lover who left, over lilting arpeggios on Portuguese guitar. Palestinian-Israeli singer Mira Awad delivers a stirring, Middle Eastern rock anthem with Ana Ana wa Enta Enta (I Am What I Am).
From war-torn Mali, singer Vieux Farka Toure pleads for a lover not to leave him alone again on the lovely, lullaby-like Mon Amour (My Love).
The musicians who take IRP on the road are equally international, and as likely to hail from countries torn by violence.
“The most important thing for your readers to know is that before you sign a peace agreement with your enemy, you should consider him as a neighbor,” he says. For Americans, he adds, that would mean getting to know the cultures of places like Afghanistan and Iran.
“The most important thing is to get to know their culture their food, their art,” he says. “The most important thing for Israeli youngsters would be that they will be able to sing three Palestinian songs.”