Vienna, December 27, 2015 – I met Idan Raichel in Vienna over the holiday season, on a Sunday morning quite early (for my personal standard, obviously). The only place around the block open at such an ungodly hour was the café inside a posh hotel so, with a heavy heart, I booked a table for two there. I had to walk through the park because the underground station I needed was under maintenance and when I arrived – 15 minutes in advance – my nose was running, my eyes were running and my makeup was running. I thought I would quickly check the table and then go to the washroom to restore some sort of dignity.
Idan Raichel was waiting for me in the lobby.
He mysteriously recognized me and greeted me with a friendly wave that I immediately forgot my makeup, the cold and the running nose. He shook my freezing hand with a smile and never mentioned the mascara-panda-eyes. Idan Raichel is a gentleman.
Idan Raichel talks smooth, and I mean it literally – he talks slowly and accurately. He stops mid-sentence if he feels the story isn’t coming out as he meant, then, quietly, starts over again with a smile. He underlines what he says not by an increase in the volume of his voice – like everybody else I know. When he wants to stress something he simply says it a tiny little bit faster. I could listen to the hypnotic tone of his voice forever.
In a world where it is acceptable to check your smartphone during a conversation and attention has long gone down the drain but we can’t hear the flush because of our headphones, Idan Raichel stands out. Like when at a party everybody suddenly stops talking and you find yourself shouting. He is very aware of where he is and of what he is doing. He notices what is happening around him – the hotel employees, his cup of coffee, the child jumping in a corner, me fumbling with my voice-recorder – without being distracted. Awareness is the word that jumps to my mind.
Also, Idan Raichel is the first artist that I interview who seems to be genuinely interested in knowing the person who’s firing questions at him. How old I am, where I come from, what foreign languages I speak, do I have brothers and sisters… all this attention got me a little confused, almost to the point when I forgot that I was conducting an interview and not casually chatting with some interesting guy I just met. Strange. In a very good way, don’t get me wrong, but strange.
Idan Raichel, still standing in the lobby, immediately started apologizing for the early hour…
Once you have kids nine o’clock is the middle of the day!
Haha, it’s ok, don’t worry! How old are your children?
I have two daughters, 2 years old and 6 months. Both of them are Viennese!
I actually met my lady exactly in this area…
Oh, tell me the story, please!
First of all I met her father, around seven years ago. He was a music teacher here in Vienna, he heard about my music and came to my concert at the Konzerthaus. After the concert he came backstage with his two daughters, and while I was talking to him one of my band members invited his daughters to dinner. I met them there.
Since then I’m telling her father You don’t bring your daughter backstage!
It sounds like a classic romantic comedy!
Hehe! So I met her here, at the Konzerthaus. Then Damaris – my lady – came back and forth to Tel Aviv many times. The past three years we’ve been living in Tel Aviv.
I’m totally in love with Vienna because it’s an amazing place. My lady lived in different districts – like in the 16th, very Turkish oriented, in the 1st, very touristy, in the 3rd district… now we’re staying in the 16thand will be back to Israel like in a month. What district do you live in?
The 7th, but I also moved around a lot, I had five different apartments in Vienna in the past ten years and each time I thought Oh, this is the perfect district! I’ll never move away! Then I move and Oh!! Now, THIS is the perfect district… so basically it’s the city.
Yeah, the city is beautiful…
And still, you live in Tel-Aviv!
There are many artists that it doesn’t really matter where they are from. For example Leonard Cohen, it doesn’t matter that he’s Canadian, right?
He could come from anywhere.
Right. Or Pet Shop Boys… they are from the UK but it doesn’t matter.
But there are singers that hold inside them the identity of the place. For example Mercedes Sosa for Argentina, or Edith Piaf for France… if you heard that Edith Piaf moved to Norway because she loved it… no! It doesn’t sound reasonable, right?! It’s Edith Piaf and she lives in France! You know what I mean?
Yes. If you move away from Israel, either you change the music you make or make entirely something else?
I think it would change the identity of what I do, yeah.
Well, who knows, maybe eventually you’ll be ready for such a change!
Yes, maybe! But not for now…
I want to tell you a story… this summer Global Rockstar made the Monopoly version of the Idan Raichel Project… it is called Global Rockstar United: We invited six artists from six continents, six handpicked artists that participated to Global Rockstar 2014.
We locked them in a recording studio here in Vienna…
(Suddenly there is excitement in Idan’s voice) Shut up!!
They emerged four days later with two songs…
The last two days we shot the video and then everybody left.
Wow! Here in Vienna?
Yes! I will show you the video afterwards!
Being there – I spent the whole time with them – was amazing. In four days they wrote a song from scratch, the music, the lyrics, the arrangement… we came out four days later with a rough mix. What amazed us was how well everybody understood each other, even if not everybody was proficient in English and one needed a translator…
It’s amazing! It’s a dream, it’s one of my dreams to be able to bring artists together and to shoot a documentary. I always thought of making it but I never had the platform.
I always wanted to bring artists together – like six to eight artists, ten days – maybe in a big hangar, a recording studio and rehearsal too, four walls and them sitting in a circle in the middle… and also cameras shooting it, as a documentary.
My dream was that this six to eight people would come from conflict areas, a guy from Israel, a guy from Syria, a guy from the conflict areas in Mali… To see how artists in conflict area are managing. And enough time to write songs, around ten days, probably…
Yes, definitely. We had four days for songwriting and the pressure the last 24 hours was almost unbearable!
Still, after four days we were best friends. The music – To the Moon – is amazing, but what really amazes me is what happened at a personal level. They were complete strangers with a task – music. The only thing they had in common was music… and they hit it off!
I just did a project with pianists around the world – United Pianos – we took the theme of Peter and the Wolf, very simple. It was naive, just to make it easy for everyone as a test case. Then I took many pianists from around the world and each one of them recorded this theme and we edited it… it’s really cool.
Do you see the same thing happen with the Idan Raichel Project? When all else is different, bond on music?
Hmm… because I play with musicians that live… one of the craziest thing that I did, I played with a musician that lived 45 minutes from my house. But I cannot meet him in Israel. There is a border and I cannot cross. And he cannot cross. So we met in New York. It’s crazy! We live a 45 minutes drive from each other’s house and we cannot cross the border.
And also Syria, I can drive to Syria in two hours. But I cannot cross the border. I’ve never been able. Also my parents have never been able. So I thought Wow! It would be amazing to meet somewhere in Europe, all these musicians from conflict areas…
At the past years, when I started the Idan Raichel Project – I started it around 12 years ago – and my intention was just to make music. I didn’t have the intention of bringing people together or crossing cultures and stuff. I just wanted to make music.
The way that we live in Israel, that is, in every block, in every neighborhood, there are many immigrants from many parts of the world. For me, it never looked special, because this is the way that we live. Your neighbor from next door is from Africa, this one is from North Africa, this one is from Germany… that’s how it is. And it’s not like in New York, that there is Chinatown or Little Italy… for us, we live together.
Before my first album, I was very young, 21-22 years old, I was a counselor in a boarding school. I realized that the youngsters who came from different parts of the world to live in Israel were losing their identity very fast. Their mission, their target, is to be Israelis. To learn the language, to be assimilated, just to be Israelis (snaps his fingers) fast.
And I thought, Why don’t you keep your own traditions? Why don’t be Israelis but keep your own language? Be Israeli but keep your own name? A lot of people in the African community in Israel adopt cool names, like Afro-American names or Jamaican names – like hip-hop nicknames. Why don’t you keep your native, African village, names? Or why don’t the former USSR immigrants keep the tradition of the opera alive? Or the ballet? Or whatever, just be Israeli but keep your own tradition!
It was important to me that in the studio we would record each one of the artist, we would record his own traditional instrument, or at least his own traditional way of playing. Even if you play guitar just have some phrases that remind of your background. And if you’re singing, sing in your own native language.
We had over 35 musicians and singers that participated in the first album. The idea of the Idan Raichel Project is that in every song there is a different lead singer and different musicians.
When we finished the album and I brought it to the record company, they immediately put it under the genre of world music. Because it’s not in English and it’s not in our local official language, Hebrew. They were not Hebrew pop-songs. But we sent it to deejays and they started playing it on mainstream radios. And very fast it became Israeli mainstream music.
It was the first time that songs on the mainstream Israelis radios were not in our official language – and it was like number one hits!
Now, it made huge news in Israel. Why? Because, imagine that in New York, in Manhattan, you’ll take a group of musicians from Little Italy, from Korea Town, from Chinatown… and the lead singer is from China, singing in Cantonese. Can you imagine that this band – the singer singing in Cantonese, in Chinese – this would be the number one hit and it will leave behind Beyoncé, or Adele, or Madonna?
It’s incred… it’s unreal! You would think it will be a hit on a world music station, but not on the mainstream.
I personally have a little problem with the definition of world music as a genre…
It’s not a genre, for me it’s a definition as good as all others…
Music genres per se are always cut with a big, big knife… this is jazz, this is rock… but there is a lot in between and you can call it whatever you want. But world music is especially bad!
First of all there are two ways of meaning world music. One is contemporary world music, the other one is traditional world music.
Traditional world music is always something very, very simple, like…
I understand that! That each country has its own roots, its own traditions…
Exactly, it can be tarantella music from Italy, it can be a tribe playing in Africa, it can be a Chinese violin playing whatever.
But the contemporary world music is exactly as you said, actually all the others… foreigners… for us Israelis Ornella Vanoni is world music, because it’s Italian and we don’t know what it is! You know what I mean?
Everything can actually be world music!
I think that there are musicians that are doing world music who are crossing over. Edith Piaf is world music from France that crossed over all over! Bob Marley is world music for all over.
So for us, my band, I think my definition is Israeli music, or world music from Israel. But when I played with Alicia Keys or when I played with Andreas Scholl at the opera… if you want to call it world music, call it world music! Call it whatever you want!
Sometimes I’m a bit lost with your music. Sometimes the influences are so strong that I have a feeling the piece is talking… a foreigner language?
Yesterday, for example, I was listening to A Quarter to Six (Idan Raichel Project’s album released 2013) when Ana Moura’s fado came up. I suddenly realized I was more at ease! I don’t understand Portuguese, I was not even listening to the words, but the feeling was I know myself. This is the verse, this is the refrain… I could navigate.
Well, sometimes I cannot navigate your music! I’m a bit embarrassed that I said this out loud… What do you think about it?
When I write the music my goal is to write it as free as possible. As free as possible.
I see every song as a scene from a movie: my role is to be the director. The kind of director that I am is… the kind of the director that Woody Allen is, or Spike Lee! The kind of director that, sometimes, writes the script. Or is involved in writing the script. And sometimes he is playing one of the roles, and sometimes not.
Every scene, after I write it, is a little story. But the story can be about… kind of a sequence, the person goes from here, across here, across here and reaches here at the end of the scene. But sometimes the scene is just atmosphere.
In an atmosphere (scene), if you just look at this place, even this lobby, it doesn’t have a beginning or an end. You can look at this life (NB very appropriately, exactly at this moment a waiter lets his tray fall on the floor making a huge noise), or you can look at this painting. On the way of arranging it, you can get focused on different things. It’s a different approach of arrangement.
For example there is a song, Chalomot Shel Acherim, and there is a motif – (Idan hums the tune) DAN DAN DONG DO DO DONG – and there is this violin, Azerbaijan violin – A-NANA-NA-NA-AHH – and the singer is singing – (Idan sings a few lines tapping the rhythm on his thigh) Shanim kulam borchim, shanim kulam chozrim, Rodfim achrei hashemesh, Shvuim betoch ma’agalim… – now you can call it a song, but for me, the way I arranged it, even if you mute the vocals…
It works. Why? Because this is a scene. You can listen for five minute like this – DAN DAN DONG DO DO DONG… The way that I arranged the film… err, the music!, is always, I mute the vocals and see if the song still works.
If it doesn’t work… it’s not good. It has to be arranged like in a classical orchestra, symphonic orchestra, if you mute one (instrument) it still… there is a lot of music, the violins are playing something, and there is something that will catch you.
There are songs that – like Sabe Deus that I composed for Anna Mura from Lisbon – the song is very clear… (hums a little) Sabe Deus, DA-DA-DA-DA-DA… it’s because I’m coming from folk music. I used to play accordion, which is the un-coolest instrument ever! While all my friends played guitar…
Oh well, maybe back then when you learned it as a child, nowadays the accordion is pretty cool…
Hehe, maybe today it’s a bit cooler! But when I played most of my friends… (shakes his head as if he’s pushing back the bad/funny memories…)
There are songs that are very in a form… with A, B, chorus, B, C part… you know, like this. But a lot of my songs are songs that are pure atmosphere.
This is why I have many fans around the world, they don’t speak the language – even me I don’t speak all the languages, it’s many languages, Amharic, German…
But I think you can feel related to this because of the scene. The scene is more important than the song, it’s the atmosphere.
So I’m telling you I can’t navigate your music and you’re saying I don’t want you to navigate, enjoy!
You don’t need to, just play it, you know?! Just play it and listen to it, and just see where it takes you. Just see where it takes you.
The Idan Raichel Project’s last album, A Quarter To Six, was released also on iTunes and you can also find an instrumental version. You can buy it without the vocals. And also the album that I just released on January 22nd 2016 – At the Edge of the Beginning – you can buy it without the vocals.
I didn’t know!
Because I believe in this so much, that it’s all about the scene.
Tell me more about the new album At the Edge of the Beginning…
I always perform with a very big band, there are between seven and fifteen people on stage, and a month ago (NB November 2015) I decided to be brave and to go alone, with a piano, for the first time.
It was important for me because I always stated it’s the ultimate way of an artist. I saw Caetano Veloso, Jilberto Jil… even Dave Matthews, playing alone. I saw an actor, a theater actor that I loved to see in big theater sets, he went on stage and gave a monologue for like 90 minutes – alone – and I thought Wow, I have to try to do it.
So a month ago I started to play. When I play piano solo the songs are going closer to the song-writing and not to the scenes. Because I go to the essence as naked as possible. So it’s a different approach, yes.
I’ve read you mean it as a step back…
…from the big production!
Yeah, away from the razzle-dazzle and towards private life – I read about your daughters and everything. There is one quote from you that struck me
“I’m not here just for myself anymore, I’m here for my daughters.”
To me, it sounds like “this man feels responsible now!”. I was wondering… responsibility is everywhere. You are responsible for your children, for your parents, your country, the environment… the planet!
Of course, one cannot feel responsible for everything, you have to channel. To pick your fights. How do you pick your fights?
It is very interesting the way that you see it!
There is a song of Bob Dylan from the album Slow Train Coming, that (says) you have to serve somebody. It says, no matter what you’ll do, you’re gonna serve somebody! You can be this, but you’re gonna serve somebody! La-la-la… you’re gonna serve somebody!
(NB This is the first verse of Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody, 1979)
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.)
To serve somebody is the responsibility. Google about it, Bob Dylan… first of all it’s an amazing album, Slow Train Coming…
I have it at home!
Hehe, Gotta serve somebody, it’s an amazing one!
The thing is, for me as an artist, I always felt totally spontaneous and free. And I didn’t feel that someone was paying a price for me being free.
For example, I got an offer to tour in Japan, three weeks. I take a flight and tour in Japan. I got an offer from a singer from Portugal to come to record. I buy a ticket (snaps his fingers), six hours, boom! I’m not here, I’m in Portugal.
Now I feel that they will pay the price.
Your family, staying home alone without you?
Yes. It is a price. I was touring – a year ago – and I was in a performing art center in the USA. One hour before the concert I opened Skype and I was talking to the family. I try to talk to my daughter, she’s very young so she doesn’t have a lot of patience… when I finished the conversation the head of the performing art center came to me and said
Was it Skype?
You’re talking to your family on Skype?
You know that it’s not worth anything?
What do you mean?
It’s bullshit! You’re not there!
What do you mean?
You can talk to your daughter 20 hours a day on Skype, and you will still not know anything about her. If you want to be a father, be a father! If you want to be an artist, be an artist! I don’t tell you what is good, but just for you to know, that when you’re abroad, you’re not at home. It’s better for you not to talk on Skype, to miss her, and she will miss you, and when you’re at home be 24/7 a father. And when you’re on the road, be on the road.
I don’t know if I agree with him.
I don’t! Of course if you’re not there, you’re not there, but… my family lives far from here and I talk to them every couple of days, once a week at least. It’s clear that it would be better if I were there, but it’s still better than if we don’t talk at all!
Exactly. But, still you have a very strong bond of many years, roots, and foundation, big, strong foundation, with your family. It’s not early times. Now you don’t need the touch of your mother anymore, you don’t need the kiss… you know how…
I think I understand what you mean, like you can maintain a long distance relationship but you cannot build up one if you’re not physically close…
Right. And you know how to summarize your day to a ten minutes conversation, which a baby cannot do! A baby is here and now.
Are you going to slow down with touring?
No! I’m not. When I talk about the responsibility, it’s this feeling… I know that if I stay at home the whole time, I’ll not be a good father…
You’ll be frustrated?
I’ll be frustrated, yes, that I’m not fulfilling myself. I feel that there is a balance, that when I’m there I’ll be fully there… and even when I’m there, there are times…
I think that the responsibility… at the back of your mind, every decision you’re taking, other people are being affected by this. This is the responsibility.
With the decisions that I took before, people were also affected. For example, I can decide I don’t want to tour for three months: it affects a lot of people from my band that won’t have a job. Or if the Global Rockstar’s staff decided I want to take a year off!… it will affect a lot of artists that are enjoying the platform!
So you have to think this, but when you see the person that you are responsible (for) every day, then it jumps up from the back of your mind.
There is a musician, name Ömer Faruk Tekbilek – a very interesting Turkish musician – when his baby was born, he stopped touring for seventeen years!
Bwah! His father put his life on hold until the kid left for college?! That’s a lot of pressure for a child!
(This is the moment when I realize we’ve been chatting for almost an hour while I was told I had 30 minutes. So, being the stupid person I am, I warned Idan Are you not running late for your Konzerthaus appointment? and he went Ah, it’s all right, I’m having fun!)
His decision was a very brave move. He took a day job in a factory and had concerts only around his area, in a way that he would not need to travel for weeks or months. In order to wake up every day with his family and to go to sleep with his family.
There is never one answer. Maybe this decision made him a better human being, maybe a better musician! Maybe it was good for the child, because his father was there all the time. Maybe it was bad, some negative vibes, or maybe he was frustrated by this. I don’t know Ömer Faruk Tekbilek in person, therefore I cannot say if it was good or bad. I think that for any decision that you’re taking the results can take to one side or another.
Back to Bob Dylan. Who do you serve? And who serves you?
Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody is very good food for thought. I think that every day we are serving someone and someone serves us. On a daily basis, I’m serving my daughters, I’m bringing food to the table for my family, even serving the audience sometimes, when someone writes me that he wants me to play this or that song. And even people that are working as employees, in the system of the Idan Raichel Project, or the Helycon Records (NB Idan’s label).
The secret is always to understand that the hierarchy is changing all the time. Sometimes you are the artist who is leading the audience, sometimes you are being led by the audience. Sometimes you are leading the record company, sometimes the record company is asking you to do some activities, or media, or press, or to pay attention to some musical choices…
I think that the secret is always to accept the fact that the hierarchy in each system is constantly changing. Changing and evolving.