Some of the singers in the Idan Raichel Project. Says Raichel, ‘I’m not black, yet the Ethiopians in the project and I work together. We succeed through music in intercommunication.’It will be a scene that the world famous Apollo Theater in New York City has never witnessed before – a concert featuring soulful Ethiopian Israeli singers. It’s all part of the first-ever performance by an Israeli group – the award-winning Idan Raichel Project – at the venerable Harlem venue, better known for hosting American soul, R&B and hip hop greats.
The group – an Israeli favorite – led by young, dreadlocked Raichel, plans on using their music to bridge the cultural gap between the US and Israel via their mutual black communities. There are roughly 100,000 Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel, who are members of the “Beta Israel” or “Lost Tribe.”
Joey Low, founder of Israel at Heart, a non-profit organization whose “single concern is the well being of Israel,” is organizing this event, in conjunction with the Office of Black ministry at the Archdiocese of New York. Low believes that bringing Raichel to Harlem will contribute to the larger goal of his organization.
“We have been working to improve Israel’s image abroad for the past four years,” Low told ISRAEL21c. “We found that through music you can reach people who know very little about Israel. It is an international language. Idan and his group, in particular, play world music and people who know nothing about Israel find their blend of Israeli/Ethiopian music exciting. Crowds around the world from as far as Singapore and Mexico City have had the pleasure of hearing him.”
The Apollo performance is another element in the effort by Raichel to serve as a cultural emissary for Israel in North America, helping to spread the message about the country’s musical and cultural diversity.
Raichel put together his group after being inspired by the Ethiopian tunes he heard while doing his army service in the entertainment troupe and becoming acquainted with the Hadassim boarding school, a school with a large population of Ethiopian immigrants. Now, his eclectic group features Ethiopian vocalists, who do the majority of the singing.
Low believes that a performance at the Apollo provides a meaningful venue to expose the Ethiopian Israelis to an American audience.
“Having grown up in New York I realize what a special place the Apollo Theater is and what it represents to the community in Harlem,” says Low. “My dream was to reach out to the community there and let them hear first hand about the 100,000 Ethiopian Israelis living and contributing to the vibrant democracy that Israel is.”
Raichel too, sees the importance in exposing the Ethiopian community. Though there are many difficulties in absorbing the Ethiopian immigrants into Israeli culture, Raichel believes that music helps to overcome those boundaries. Playing music that combines Ethiopian folk music, Arabic-language songs, Indian chants, and Hebrew verses, Raichel spreads diversity through his unique blend of music, as well as through the ethnic diversity of the members of his own band.
As he told ISRAEL21c last year, “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.”
Israeli music lovers seems to support this concept, as Raichel has won repeated honors for album of the year, song of the year, and artist of the year. After his debut album The Idan Raichel Project went straight to number one on the Israeli charts and sold over 120,000 copies in Israel alone, the band released a second album, From the Depth, in January of 2005. According to the band’s website, From the Depth can be seen as an audible “Israeli melting pot” – though the songs still combine ethnic verses with Hebrew lyrics, the album is not limited to any one particular music tradition.
Raichel met with similar admiration abroad, when he debuted his first album on his overseas tour in 2005. Among other successes on his 16 stop tour of North America, Raichel played to a sold-out crowd in Montreal, whose crowd of 2,000 knew every word to the group’s hit song “Come Over.” The language barrier was hardly noticeable as the crowd danced and sang along to Raichel’s mixed language tunes – a testament to his music’s powerful ability to overcome diversity.
Amir Gissin, director of the public affairs department at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who helped arrange Raichel’s last US tour, told ISRAEL21c, “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.”
And who better to do so than Raichel, who can silence a room in Israel more quickly than a high profile political figure. At a recent concert in his hometown of Kfar Saba, Raichel kept a packed concert hall on the edge of their seats by simply drawing his thumb and middle finger together, the Israeli motion indicating “wait a minute” as he took a long drink from his water bottle. A well respected Israeli pop hero, the silence was characteristically ‘unIsraeli’, as the audience hung onto Raichel’s every word.
Music is not the only avenue that Israel at Heart utilizes to show Americans another side of Israel. Low has brought seven Ethiopian Israelis to study in three different year programs in law business and government.
“As part of the performance two of the students will speak about their journey to Israel,” says Low. [They will discuss] “their integration into Israeli society, their new University experience, and the challenges facing their community in Israel.” These students will be able to provide education on unknown or unfamiliar aspects of Israeli society.
“If people will stop, listen and learn about the reasons for the Ethiopian Jews going to Israel and leaving all their possessions behind and risking their lives to get to Jerusalem,” says Low, “they will be inspired to assist this wonderful group of people who have so much to contribute to world Jewry and Israel in particular.”
A unique addition to this year’s tour, Raichel’s group will be joined on April 8th at the Apollo Theater by Roger Holland and ‘The Tribe of Levi,’ an Ethiopian group that performs gospel songs in their native language. He will subsequently be joined on April 9th by Danny Coakley, a well known Harlem gospel singer. The joint effort will offer a unique opportunity to blend communities, and the exposure to a different audience will hopefully work towards Raichel’s greater goal of breaking stereotypes of Israel.
When people come to Israel to visit, Raichel told ISRAEL21c, 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.”