Idan Raichel’s double life

Israel’s favorite world music practitioner has recorded a gem with Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré.

Yossi Fine (left), Idan Raichel and Vieux Farka Touré (photo credit: Nitzan Treistman)
Yossi Fine (left), Idan Raichel and Vieux Farka Touré
(photo credit: Nitzan Treistman)
Call it Idan Raichel’s ‘Side’ Project. And a project The Tel Aviv Sessions by The Touré- Raichel Collective certainly is – encompassing a new album and a tour with gifted African guitarist Vieux Farka Touré that has taken more than three years to germinate, from an airport terminal in Germany to a stage in Spain to a studio in Tel Aviv.
Everyone know about Israel’s great world music hope and his his primary focus – the ongoing eclectic musical collective known as The Idan Raichel Project, which has spent the last decade traversing the globe bringing their multicultural blend of Middle Eastern, African and pop sounds to a receptive audience and, in the process, becoming Israel’s most ubiquitous export since drip irrigation.
But something else has been tugging at the dreadlocked Raichel’s frontal lobe – and anyone who’s attended one of his shows will get the hint. Listen to the evocative warm-up music that’s played before the lights go down at every Raichel show for the last eight years. It’s the strains of one of his greatest influences – the late Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré – and his classic 1994 album with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu, which for many represented a point of intersection of traditional Malian music and the blues.
“I’ve been listening to Touré’s music since my army days, when I started exploring world music. Talking Timbuktu is one of the most important albums ever made because Ry Cooder knew exactly how to take Ali’s music from the village to the Western world but still keep it traditional Malian music,” said Raichel in a recent phone interview with The Jerusalem Post. “It’s just really magical.”
Although Touré died in 2006, Raichel has not let the connection to the African master’s music fade away.
On the contrary, he’s become equally enthralled with the music of Touré’s son, Vieux, who in recent years has been dubbed the “Hendrix of the Sahara” for his electrifying guitar playing, which reached a worldwide audience during a performance at the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa.
But it took a chance meeting at a German airport in 2008 to bring Raichel and the young Touré together where, while waiting for their respective connecting flights, they talked about – what else? – music and discovered there was much in common between the Tel Aviv Jew and the Malian Muslim.
“We talked about being on the road.
No matter where you’re from, being on the road is the same and creates a bond between people,” says Raichel, adding that Touré had been familiar with his music after shows by Raichel’s Project in Mali the previous year.
“Vieux is one of the most important artists out there, and I told him then, at the airport, that I would be more than honored to leave my band for a while and join his, as the keyboard player. I guess it would be comparable to someone who has his own restaurant going for a while to wait tables at one of the top gourmet restaurants in the world, just to be able to explore different styles from a different view,” says Raichel.
He did see that dream through by flying to Spain the next year to sit in on piano with Touré, cementing their friendship even further.
When Raichel agreed to serve as artistic director for a world music series that the Tel Aviv Opera House was presenting in 2010, the first artist he thought of bringing to Israel was Touré. The guitarist opened the series, with Raichel as special guest, and the results, according to Raichel, were unforgettable.
“It was really moving to see every person in the Opera House standing and clapping for a Muslim artist who was coming to Israel to play his music, not afraid of any boycotts. It wasn’t a political statement, it was a musical one,” says Raichel.
The performance that night didn’t satiate Touré’s appetite, and he suggested to Raichel that they find a nearby studio and have a jam session. Raichel secured the studio and, joined by bassist Yossi Fine, who had recorded with Touré before, and Malian calabash player Souleymane Kane, the four of them spent more than three hours improvising acoustic material that didn’t fit into any musical box except for the one titled “beautiful.”
“It was very spontaneous. We had a few melodies, but it was very sketchy – no verses, choruses or song forms. Just playing the vibe as it was happening,” Raichel recounts. “It was amazing.”
The tapes of the session went into the archival drawers at both Raichel’s and Touré’s record companies, and the artists continued on their respective paths. However, the tapes made their way to Jacob Edgar, the head of world music label Cumbancha, who called Raichel and told him that within those three hours of studio jams was hidden a great album.
“I was skeptical – we’re talking about flowing 15-minute tracks. But Jacob suggested that I wait a while and go back and listen again. So after six months, I did that and I could also hear the album hidden away there. It’s like an archeological find covered with lots of mud, but you take some layers away and you see the treasure,” says Raichel.
Over the next year, Raichel worked on the tapes, shortening some tracks, adding an overdub here and there, but according to him, “always with a lot of respect for the original music created in the jam session. It’s a completely different album than we’re used to in these days of shuffle modes and YouTube, jumping around after two minutes and changing genres. I liken it to when you go to Sinai. At first, you’re not going to get the pace and the silence that surrounds you – it’s going to take a few days to adjust. This album is like the Sinai on the seventh day.”
With The Tel Aviv Sessions freshly released, Raichel and Touré are eager to go out on the first tour of the Touré- Raichel Collective, three weeks of shows in the US and Canada during April. Despite the improvisational nature of the music, Raichel says he isn’t worried that the group won’t be able recapture the magic they created in the Tel Aviv studio.
“We’re going to have some safety nets, some kind of landmarks that we set in rehearsals,” he says. “We’ll go on stage and try to capture the moment.
But if we feel we’re getting lost, we’ll be able to beam in on those landmarks.
We don’t know where the road will lead, but that’s the magic of this kind of show. We’re going to be flexible – maybe he’ll want to sing one of his songs, or I will. I think it’s going to be captivating. Both of us represent two totally different worlds – he’s a Muslim guitarist from the extreme edge of the Sahara, and we’re coming from Tel Aviv. I’m sure it will be interesting to see us, but for us it will be fascinating to see the mix of the audiences.”
Raichel says that both he and Touré will be Twittering about their tour and posting free tracks from various shows on their Facebook pages. And a second Touré-Raichel tour is planned for Europe in the fall. After that, Raichel says he hopes to bring the Collective to Israel.
In the meantime, a listen to The Tel Aviv Sessions will provide a one-way ticket to Sinai on the seventh day.