February 21, 2020

Israeli Musical Innovator Idan Raichel on Inspiration and Innovation

Idan Raichel, a pioneer of Israeli world music, has collaborated with more than 150 international musicians as part of his “Idan Raichel Project” with performances in Arabic, German, Spanish, Amharic, French and other tongues. He also has performed with headliners Dave Matthews, India. Arie and Alicia Keys, as well as Portugal’s Ana Moura, France’s Patrick Bruel, Italy’s Ornella Vanoni, Germany’s Andreas Scholl and Mali’s Vieux Farka Touré.

The singer, producer and composer is also one of his homeland’s most renowned recording artists. Since its release in 2019, his “unity ballad,” “Shevet Achim V’Achayot,” co-written with Doron Medalie, composer of Netta Barzilai’s 2018 Eurovision hit, “Toy,” has racked up more than 25 million YouTube views.

Earlier hits have well surpassed that. Among them, “Im Telech” expresses vulnerability with the lyrics, “If you go, who will hold me like this?”

Most recently, Raichel appeared — solo — for an evening of conversation, when he also played piano and sang some of his hits at the December 2019 Limmud Festival in Birmingham, England. 

Raichel, 42, who grew up in Kfar Saba, first learned to play the accordion, which he calls “the most uncool” instrument. 

Jewish Journal: You now play the accordion onstage. What changed?

Idan Raichel: Accordion is one of the greatest instruments for world music. It kept my ears, eyes and heart open to music all over the world. And yes, I got back to it in my 20s and I’m still playing it now. If you bring your truth one way or another, that is the most important thing. Even if it will not beat Beyoncé on the charts, at least you know you put your stamp and your heart on the microphone.

JJ: What did you love about serving in the Israel Defense Forces band?

IR: I was making concerts every day for different army troops all over Israel. Playing for soldiers, you’re contributing to your country. And soldiers are the most honest audience after kids, because if you don’t play well, you’re wasting their time. It was a really nice experience.

JJ: For years, you grew massive dreadlocks. Suddenly, they disappeared. How did that happen?

IR: Being inspired by music from all over the world, my look was also inspired from different places. Of course, I shaved my head every day in the army. The dreadlocks were kind of a fashion statement. And then to just change, and not to depend on the look, but to have a unique style of music, was more important to me. Once we were about to have our first baby, my partner Damaris [Deubel], thought, “Maybe it’s also time to change the look?”

JJ: How did you meet Damaris?

IR: Backstage. I actually met her father first — a music teacher in Vienna. He bought my CD for his daughters. That was their first introduction to my music. They came to my concert in Vienna. Then I met them backstage and then we kept in touch. We know each other already for 10 years.

“If you bring your truth one way or another, that is the most important thing. Even if it will not beat Beyoncé on the charts, at least you know you put your stamp and your heart on the microphone.”

JJ: How does fathering your daughters, Phillipa, 5, and Salome, 4, impact your music?

IR: A lot of songs I write are about them. I don’t see myself touring anymore for half the year. It’s just choices. But “Everything is everything,” as [recording artist] Lauryn Hill said. It’s what it is. And it’s beautiful. And I accept everything with love.

JJ: How did working with young Ethiopian immigrants influence your music?

IR: The experience of being a counselor in a boarding school was a really important year in my life right after the army to understand Amharic culture in Israel, new immigrants and the identity of youngsters who came from East Africa to the Western world, and their family structure turning upside town, with kids supporting the family. It affected my music a lot because suddenly I had the impact of different elements in my music. I grew up listening to Israeli music and not African music, and especially not East African music. So all of this was really amazing.

JJ: What inspires your songwriting?

IR: My songs are always inspired by stories. Sometimes it’s a story I’ve heard from parents, a friend or a lover from the past, or it can be from my lady, or it can be fictional. It’s always important to keep it personal and real.

JJ: What are some of your most meaningful or personal songs?

IR: All of them are pretty much personal because [they’re] coming from my heart. The most meaningful are songs sung in school. If kids in Florida are learning Hebrew by learning “Bo’ie” [“Come”], it’s a great honor. If kids in kindergarten are singing in their end-of-the-year party my song “Lifnei Sh’Yigamer” [“Before It Ends”], it makes it very meaningful.

JJ: What gives your songs their emotional force?

IR: Less is more. Sometimes people say, “I miss you like this and like that,” and “I love you like that and the moon and flowers” and people find it may be too simple to say, “I love you, I miss you,” and just to expose your heart and your vulnerability. And if you’re writing from this point of view, it will reach people’s hearts.

JJ: When “Bo’ie” debuted on Israeli radio, the Idan Raichel Project became an overnight sensation. What inspired the song?

IR: “Bo’ie” is the very first song that I wrote. It was almost like praying in a very spontaneous way, my feeling and interpretation about love, being direct: “Come with me, without any places or target, or thinking about happiness. Just come with me, hold my hand and walk this long way together.”


Lisa Klug is a freelance journalist and the author of “Cool Jew” and “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe.”