TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — Take a look across today's Middle East, and it's easy to lose hope in the possibility of peace. Whether it's the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the rise of extremism in countries like Iraq and Libya or the increasingly intractable Arab-Israeli conflict, the region seems increasingly unstable and starved for progress.
Sometimes hope hides in the most unlikely of places.
Idan Raichel, hardly a household name in the United States but one of the most popular musicians in Israel, is on a mission to use music to break down barriers. The 38-year-old global music icon — famous for his once long dreadlocks, now shaved — has headlined such coveted shows as New York's Central Park Summer Stage, collaborated with American pop stars like Alicia Keys and India.Arie and twice performed for President Barack Obama. But these are hardly the accomplishments he's most proud of.
In 2002, Raichel launched the Idan Raichel Project with a simple premise: to collaborate with musicians from all over the world. His music represents a fusion of Jewish music with sounds from Africa to Latin America, and his songs include lyrics in a range of languages, including Arabic, Swahili and Portuguese. Although he didn't launch the project intending to make a statement, Raichel saw quickly that exposing Israeli audiences to differing music and points of view put him in somewhat of a cultural ambassador role.
"What we are doing is political, because it's making a statement to build bridges between all these cultures," Raichel said when I visited him in his childhood home in Kfar Saba, a suburb located just a short drive from Tel Aviv. "If I could, I would collaborate even more with people across borders — with musicians from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and more. I believe it's important for all these voices [to be] heard in the Israeli mainstream."
His collaborations have broken down notable boundaries within Israeli culture: In 2005, Raichel performed with the Israeli Arab singer Mira Award, an experience which he said represented the "first time a Palestinian-Arabic singer could be heard in the Israeli mainstream."
As with anything in this divisive region, Raichel is not without his detractors. Raichel, who served in the Israeli army at the age of 18 and has since performed for the Israeli military and on an Israeli settlement in 2007, has drawn criticism for his close ties to the Israeli government. But talk to the artist and you'll learn he is not shy to openly criticize certain aspects of Israeli society.
"People don't have a clue what's going across the borders, even though it's only a one-hour flight to these countries, in any direction," Raichel said. "The biggest challenge of Israel's education system will be teaching young people to study life across the borders."
Even while busily touring Europe, Raichel keeps himself abreast of developments across the world. He's been following the Syrian refugee crisis and the U.S. election closely. Taking a jab at Republican front-runner Donald Trump, he called it "dangerous" that "reality show culture is entering into every space."
At a time when international mistrust seems at an all-time high, and peace talks between Israel and Palestine have stalled, Raichel's music may be more important than ever.
Editor's note: The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: Can you explain your motivation for this project?
Idan Raichel: First and foremost, I see myself as an international musician. You can compare my work to a filmmaker like Spike Lee or Woody Allen, because I'm the bandleader in the Idan Raichel project, but not the lead singer. I write all the music and lyrics, and I produce all the songs, but in every song, you'll find a different lead singer and different musicians.
In every song, you'll hear singers and musicians from different parts of the world. The youngest member is 16, the oldest is 91, and we have over 150 musicians, who come from Yemen, Ethiopia, refugee camps in Sudan, Colombia, Argentina, Germany, Suriname and the Netherlands. It's really from all over.
My idea was to make music with friends from different parts of the world. It turned out to be a project that bridged cultures, and put the voices of real people — the soundtrack of the street — in the mainstream. You can hear so many different languages — from Hebrew to Palestinian Arabic to Spanish to Bambara and German. Now, the music has become mainstream in Israel.
Did you envision from the beginning that the project would make such a statement?
IR: When I started the project, there was no statement. I was simply making music with friends. For example, I never saw my drummer as my Iraqi drummer or my singer as my Ethiopian singer. Similarly, when I collaborated with Alicia Keys, I didn't see her as a New York singer. It was just a group of amazing human beings and talented artists, some who are very famous and others who are holding the mic for the first time.
But I am aware that when I collaborated with someone like the [Israeli-Arabic singer] Mira Awad, this was the first time a Palestinian Arabic singer could be heard in the Israeli mainstream. I am also aware that in a country where it's still forbidden for the philharmonic orchestra to play the music of Wagner because of the trauma of the Holocaust, we brought a German lead singer to the mainstream for the first time.
Why is it important for you to work with so many artists from across the world?
IR: When I started playing at 9 years old, I played the accordion, which is the least cool instrument ever. I played a lot of the Red Army songs from the former U.S.S.R., tangos from Argentina, gypsy music from Bulgaria, all to keep my ears and eyes open to music from different parts of the world.
I was also always envious of musicians who have strong roots. For example, in John Lennon and Paul McCartney, you can literally hear Liverpool in the speakers. Similarly, when you listen to Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, you can hear Harlem.
I realized what I can bring to the world is the wider perspective. The DNA of the accordion is folk music, which is at the root of all other music, too. So all of these other musicians that I work with also have a similar DNA, which is all rooted in folk music.
Are there examples of stereotypes that you had, going into working with some of these musicians, that changed as a result of collaborating with them?
IR: When they study other forms of music, many musicians try to do research about the music in a pedagogic way. This is such a surface approach. For example, [when it comes to African music], Africa is a huge continent, and there is zero connection between the music of Ethiopia in the east and Mali in the west.
What I've also learned is you cannot become another culture. The best you can do is to be influenced by [the music of] all these different elements. You can't, for example, open a Mexican restaurant if you're not Mexican, but you can open your own interpretation.
I'm OK with someone saying they are influenced by [another culture's music]. But, one cannot become a country musician if they are from a place like Denmark, for example.
"My idea was to make music with friends from different parts of the world. It turned out to be a project that bridged cultures, and put the voices of real people — the soundtrack of the street — in the mainstream."
In the United States, there is a big debate over cultural appropriation in music, brought to light by artists like Iggy Azalea in hip-hop. What's your take on this issue?
IR: It's all about being aware of who you are and where you are going to go. It can be interesting to see how a guy from Sweden, for example, can come to Manhattan, get influenced by rap, and then do it in his own style. But if he's trying to be the next Jay Z, you would not want to hear it. No one wants to listen to something "wannabe."
Either you want to listen to something original — the original LL Cool J or Jay Z — or you want to listen to a fusion. That's interesting.
How political do you consider your music to be? How much are you trying to inject into the political conversation?
IR: I've never made my political views known [through my music], even though I have strong ones, because I work with 150 musicians, some who are extremely right-wing and others left-wing, and they are all playing together.
But I do feel that what we are doing is political, because it's making a statement to build bridges between all these cultures. If I could, I would collaborate even more with people across borders — with musicians from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and more. I believe it's important for all these voices [to be] heard in the Israeli mainstream.
People don't have a clue what's going on across the borders, even though it's only a one-hour flight to these countries, in any direction. For example, no one knows a filmmaker from Syria, or a sculptor from Lebanon, or a singer from Palestine, or a clothing designer from Saudi Arabia. And why would people want peace if they don't know anyone from other cultures? I feel that the biggest challenge of Israel's education system will be teaching young people to study life across the borders.
There are growing calls in Europe to close borders in light of the refugee crisis. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Donald Trump's message is also predicated on closing off diversity. It seems like we're living through a clash of anger and anxiety between cultures. Can your music serve to counteract these forces?
IR: For one, I love countries, and I don't think we should have one big continent. For example, I love to go to France and feel that I'm in France. If there is no definition of a place, it will all look like truck stops along the huge highways in the United States, where there is a McDonald's, Starbucks and a gas station. The beauty of Europe is that when you land in Italy, you know you are in Italy. So I think you should act not from fear, but in trying to keep the natural beauty of the world.
Having said that, the world in a moral way, and in a human way, needs to take care of these poor refugees from Syria until it will be safe for them to return to their country. It's a death wish to leave them there.
Have you been following the news about U.S. election at all?
IR: I have followed it too closely, because I've been on tour in Europe, but I do feel it's showing how reality show culture is entering into every space. The guy who is most provocative will get another segment on the news. It feels like everything has become like the show Big Brother. The one who is loudest will do the best. It's a dangerous situation. The young generation doesn't seem to see the difference between what is a reality show and who will actually be the chosen as the leader of the world.
What was it like performing for Obama and with Alicia Keys?
IR: I had the honor to perform for President Obama twice, first at the Martin Luther King celebration with Indie.Arie in Washington, D.C. The president walked in and gave a speech that brought me to tears. It was a beautiful moment.
After the concert, I took a flight to Israel. I got a text from someone whose 4-year-old son was dying from cancer and asked me if I was willing to play for him. I went to the hospital, and I played for him, one-on-one. I think Obama would agree with me, the concert at the hospital was more important. This concert put everything in perspective.
The second time I had the honor to perform for Obama was at a private dinner here in Israel with Secretary John Kerry and our Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Suddenly, Obama and Kerry took out their phones and filmed a video. I thought to myself that at the end of the day, they are parents to their daughters. There was something so human about them taking a selfie with their phones.
So what's coming next?
IR: Next is mostly to be a better father. My daughter is 2 years old, and my second is almost 1 year old. It has been too many months on the road. I do want to perform and continue to do what I do. I love what I do. But I want to take some time to be a good father.
Sign up for Idan Raichel's mailing list to receive a free download of seven of the Idan Raichel Project songs.