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We Are the World, We Are Israeli ...

May 20, 2010 By:
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The Ashkenazi Lawrence Welk?

Don't mean to burst your bubble, Idan Raichel, but how could such a cool kid commit to an accordion to start his iconoclastic climb up rock's rocky highway?

"It helped keep my eyes and ears open to sounds all over the world," says the now 32-year-old sabra from Kfar Saba, so far away from those early years pressing the vertical keyboards, keying in on the mysteries of Mideast music.

But gypsy music -- as well as tango -- brought out the gypsy in him, precursors for the panoramic predilections that inform his hit musical fusion of fandango and far-away places now.

We are the world? He is bringing it all to audiences himself -- along with members of the acclaimed Idan Raichel Project -- with his next global pit stop in Philadelphia, where Raichel will take the stage as part of the Israel Independence Day celebration on Sunday, May 23, at 3 p.m.

This 62nd Israeli birthday party, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Penns Landing, is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia (JewishPhilly.org/Israel 62). Raichel's performance will also kick off the PECO Multicultural Series, which will run through mid-September.

Raichel's mix of Mideast, Caribbean, Ethiopian and Latin American sounds spill out of the instruments, just inviting audiences to dance and deliver.

With multi-wattage albums to his credit -- his release "Ben Kirot Beyti ("Within My Walls") went platinum -- Raichel, the rage of young audiences seeking a piece of the peace and harmony eluding them so far at home, got some early guidance on his career, getting by with a little help from friends.

Which is ironic given that his interest in world music is worlds away from what he first did on the job market. His early exposure to the Ethiopian influences stem from a post-military career as a school guidance counselor for immigrants, many of them Ethiopian.

Save a place for him on the Save a Child's Heart tour of Rwanda and Ethiopia, he requested, and 13 years ago they did just that, as the erstwhile Israeli army rock-band director directed his vision to undeveloped countries.

"We are third generation out of Europe," he says of his family, "with no classical [musical] roots. I felt rootless" -- until he discovered the rooting section amid the Ethiopian ethos.

"I was fascinated by their sound," the ethereal Ethiopian wailing wall of music that never seemed to make it on the airwaves of Israel radio, he says.

But he made the connection with their people: "They struggled to get to our country just as my grandparents did so coming to Israel from Europe. I could see [it] as their counselor."

And he could hear it in the vibes of their voices. But they were not alone in calling out to his heart; other groups -- Yemenites, Arabs -- fused his personal soul music, too.

Soon, Raichel assembled some 70 musicians from around the world -- including a percussionist from Suriname -- to make peace with his need to stomp out the sharp notes and flatten out the flat in presenting a more upbeat vision of global greatness.

And suddenly, the newly formed Idan Raichel Project of 2002 was projecting a sound unheard of before. The man who would go on to record "Within My Walls" was thinking outside the beat box.

"I'm opening doors, getting out to the world" a sound that echoes of cooperation rather than combustion, for a united -- not undone -- globe.

Unmet yet is his mission to incorporate even more cultures into the music mix.

"We have to teach each other about other countries, which is why I would one day like to have Iranian, Syrian musicians in the Project" as well, he says.

"My arms are open, my microphone is open" to other cultures, he avows.

The sound check includes checking egos at the door: Raichel easily shifts the focus of the performances to others in his ensemble -- scaled down from the original 70 -- preferring to think of himself as director rather than star.

And nothing he dreads more than his sound being considered trendy. That goes for his dreadlocks as well.

"I'm done with it," he laughs. "I'm shaving them off. I'm too old for this," he says of the mischievous Bob Marley-like look and style that snakes down his neck.

Oh, and one more thing, that reference to him being the Ashkenazi Lawrence Welk?

"Who is that?" he replies. "I don't know who that is." 

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