Israeli musician and songwriter Idan Raichel will take the stage of the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday, Feb. 22, for a performance of works from his new album, “Piano Songs.” Known primarily as a collaborator and promoter of other musicians, for this tour, he will present a pared-down, solo performance and play all the instruments himself.
At Strathmore, he will sing and speak in both Hebrew and English. He aims to take fans and new listeners alike on a journey to his musical roots–the melodies of his songs before they changed perspective through the lens of The Idan Raichel Project (TIRP), a “band” he worked with for more than a decade that involved nearly 100 musicians and singers from almost as many countries.
The idea started with a demo he recorded in his parents’ basement. Raichel had been playing music since age 9, starting with the accordion, eventually mastering several instruments including piano and writing his own songs. In the early aughts, he asked his diverse circle of friends to contribute to his demo, blending their voices, instruments and ideas with his original melodies. He approached music with an openness that invited sounds from all over the world to work together. Most markedly at the beginning, he incorporated Ethiopian rhythms and traditional sounds into Israeli pop.
The songs topped the charts in Israel, and as listeners learned about this talented instigator of cultural exchange, more voices joined him. Ultimately 95 singers and musicians contributed to TIRP, including American artists India Arie and Alicia Keys, Portugal’s Ana Moura, France’s Patrick Bruel, Italy’s Ornella Vanoni, Germany’s Andreas Scholl, Poland’s Kayah and Mali’s Vieux Farka Touré—all of whom are huge stars in their native countries.
“It’s been a great experience to see how music can build a bridge between cultures,” Raichel said. “It sounds cliché, but it is a beautiful experience.”
As his recordings gained popularity on the radio, a demand for live performances formed, so he gathered a core group from the album and went on a world tour. “There would be no front man,” Raichel said in an interview for his label, Cumbancha, a Vermont-based company. “I would sit at the side and watch things and see what occurs. Every song would have a different singer, [and] we would sit in a half circle and each musician would have a chance to demonstrate what they have to offer.”
TIRP released four studio albums and a three-CD collection of live recordings. In 2006, Cumbancha released a compilation of the group’s first two albums worldwide, which earned praise from critics across the globe. Among their accolades and honors was a 2013 invitation for IRP to perform in a private concert for President Barack Obama.
During these experiences, Raichel recorded “Within My Walls,” a 2009 world release that came about from sessions in dressing rooms, hotel stopovers and the homes of musicians now added to TIRP. Collaborators ranged from musical superstars to small-town players—but all of equal talent and Raichel treated them as such.
Having headed the project for 13 years, Raichel decided to take some time to revive himself and refresh his sound by making something simple and all his own. The inspiration for his current tour stems from a conversation he had with friend and collaborator Vieux Ali Farka Touré, who was born in a village in West Africa.
After several performances together during a TIRP tour, Touré asked him, ‘Why do you get so excited before going on stage?’ Raichel was perplexed. “Of course, it’s exciting!” he had answered, but his friend explained: “Imagine you are in the village. You eat breakfast, then play [music]. You milk the cows, then play. At night, you gather around the fire with friends and family and play.” Touré’s point was that performing music “should be part of daily life,” Raichel realized. “It should be an open conversation.” This concept changed the way Raichel thought about performing.
For the “Piano Songs” tour, he wanted an informal approach, “no list of songs, no script,” he said. Just as the striking-looking musician shed his trademark heavy dreadlocks, he has shaved his music down to its essential roots. Raichel sees himself as “a storyteller [who] invites [audiences] into my living room . . .to sit around the fire, to play and sing.”
Idan Raichel presents “Piano Songs” at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. A pre-concert lecture on “Arab Music and Israel Identity” by Haim Malka, Deputy Director and Senior Fellow of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, will take place from 6:45 to 7:30 p.m. in the Music Center Education Room 402; admission is free with a concert ticket; registration online is highly recommended. For tickets, $32 to $74, call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org. Learn more about this concert here.