While the critics debate Matisyahu’s merits, there’s a very different black-Jewish musical dialogue happening in global pop. At its center is a dreadlocked Israeli singer-songwriter named Idan Raichel, who’s in the midst of a monthlong North American tour that winds up at the Apollo Theater.
Raichel, who is 28 and Ashkenazi, had an instant hit back in 2002 with The Idan Raichel Project, which became one of the best-selling albums of the year in Israel, followed by Out of the Depths last year. The secret to Raichel’s success is a delicate yet passionate mixture of traditional Ethiopian music—sampled Jewish prayers chanted mostly in Amharic and rhythmic African folk grooves—with contemporary dance beats and synthesizer textures.
This traditional-meets-techno formula isn’t really new, and Israelis have been experimenting musically with their own multicultural heritage since the 1980s. But Raichel adds the musical voices of Ethiopian Jews, which have been essentially ignored until now. And he brings a sensitive musical arranger’s ear to the classic dilemma of world pop: how to fuse the obscure and the familiar into a combination that doesn’t sound contrived or esoteric. The Ethiopian liturgical music lends a spiritual resonance to secular Hebrew love songs that might otherwise slip into pop music clichés. At the same time, the savvy pop sound inflects the African Jewish chants with a more tuneful quality that rescues them from becoming exotica. Hence the title track to Out of the Depths, echoing a Hebrew verse from the biblical book of Psalms. A tight Amharic vocal riff rings out over a simple minor chord progression, alternating with Raichel’s own quiet voice singing to a woman, “Who is calling to you tonight? Listen, whose voice sang to you from outside your window? Who gave his soul so that you would be happy?…Who will save you from all the bad spirits, from out of the depths?” The simple words take on the poetic depth and ambiguity of a mystical love song.
Above all, what makes Idan Raichel’s project special is how it captures the sound of a younger Israeli generation that is looking past the conventional labels of secular and religious, Sephardic and Ashkenazic, and even past the Middle East in search of a new kind of identity. This isn’t so different, of course, from the situation among younger Jewish pop musicians in America. But while Matisyahu continues to fiddle like a musical convert with his new ethnic garb, Idan Raichel has moved forward into much more interesting musical terrain. Still, when you get right down to it, the question remains, how will it play in Harlem?