Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Not Your Grandmother's Jewish Music

Hollywood and the world have typically told the story of the Jewish people as that of an eastern European people. Never mind that there have been Jews in Iraq continuously for about 2500 years.

Until fifty years ago, there were 900,000 Jews in middle eastern countries like Libya, Morocco, Yemen, Iraq and Iran. In 1977, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews were discovered when they began walking to Sudan in an attempt to join their brothers and sisters in Israel.

Their story has rarely been told.

Twenty-something singers Cabra Kasai and Avi Wassa are both Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel as small children. They grew up Ethiopian and yet also grew up Israeli. A decade ago this paradox would have forced them to turn their backs on their Ethiopian culture, explains Israeli star Idan Raichel, the 28-year-old composer and musician who wrote all the songs on his double-platinum album, the Idan Raichel Project.

“I was a [counsellor] in a boarding school in Israel,” he says, explaining his early experiences with Ethiopian culture. “I guided there the Russian community, the Ethiopian community, and the Israeli [mainstream] community.”

“I noticed that the Ethiopian community, they changed their names,” he says. One such example is Avi Wassa, whose first name is really Wogperas. “They don’t keep their roots.”

Raichel explains that listening to their cultural music, both popular and traditional, inspired him to create music synthesizing Ethiopian tradition and modern reggae.

The result? A double-platinum album with four hit singles, the Israeli song of the year award for the ballad “If you go” in 2002, and a cast of characters which features 30 different singers and musicians. The follow-up, released less than three weeks ago, has already gone gold with similar collaborations meant to reflect the music of contemporary Israeli society.

Thursday’s performance at the Danforth Music Hall by Raichel and seven of his performers, including singers Wassa, Casai and Israeli solo artist Maya Avraham, kicked off the group’s first major coast-to-coast North American tour. The show, which precedes similar ones in Boston, Miami, Washington and Montreal, was not your grandmother’s Israeli concert.

In front of a packed house, Raichel and band performed their hits, which combine Hebrew, Arabic and the Ethiopian dialect Amharic. Behind his keyboard and decked out in a Rastafarian ‘do, Raichel led his mixed bag of bandmates in songs as they all danced barefoot across the stage in front of the adoring crowd.

Audience members didn’t have to understand the Amharic lyrics mixed with evocative passages from the biblical love story “Song of Songs”. The beauty of the lyrics of the famed ballads “Come” (Come, give me your hand and we will go; Don't ask me where…) and “If you go” (If you go, who will hold me like this) were clear despite the many different languages in the songs.

Most of the songs were not quite the same live, as many of the original musicians of the songs were not present (Raichel tours with only 7 of his 30 collaborating musicians), but the music was nonetheless brilliant and stirring. Though the most die-hard of fans might argue that “If you go” was performed better on the CD, the emotion the musicians put into their singing, dancing and playing made the concert experience breath-taking.

While the sounds and sights of Idan Raichel are surprising to the first-time viewer, he believes that they should be nothing but natural.

“For me, they are the Israel of 2005, which represents the immigration and the colours of Israel,” he says. The distance their group has come in three short years is amazing, he says, explaining how it felt to perform in Tel Aviv’s biggest opera hall for the first time.

“I was thinking to myself, ten years ago, Avi Wassa came from Ethiopia and Cabra Kasai was in Sudan,” he says. Today, he says, “they can walk really proud.”

By Aliza Libman, first published in Excalibur during February 2005. Reprinted in Afterword's Summer 2005 issue. Photo of Maya Avraham by Aliza Libman.


Post a Comment

<< Home