Israeli Singer of the World

MADRID — Idan Raichel, who was recently voted Israel’s musician of the decade in polls conducted by Israeli news media, is no ordinary ambassador for his country.

The Israeli singer and musician Idan Raichel before a recent concert in Madrid.
Idan Raichel during a dress rehearsal for a recent concert in Madrid.

Tucking into a piece of bacon during a breakfast interview, he explained: “Instead of kosher, I prefer to keep it tasty.”

Mr. Raichel might not conform, but his views have never veered toward disrespect. He said that he admires Orthodox Jews — even those who have criticized him for using religious texts to compose his lyrics.

“I use the Bible because all the most important and beautiful things have already been said, so that the best that I can probably do is repeat them,” he said. “There is simply no greater love song than what you find in the Book of Psalms.”

Mr. Raichel’s music, however, goes well beyond repurposing ancient verses.

Since the release of his debut album “The Idan Raichel Project” in January 2003, he has worked with about 100 different musicians and singers to fuse traditional Middle Eastern instruments with electronic sounds, and to combine Jewish music with that of regions ranging from West Africa to Latin America and India. And while Hebrew dominates his lyrics, his songs are peppered with languages including Arabic, Amharic, Swahili, Spanish and Creole Portuguese. His first album was a commercial success, selling more than 150,000 copies.

Mr. Raichel calls himself a “very proud Israeli” but, as with his music, his physical appearance makes it hard to place him on the map. He has long dreadlocks, held together in a black turban, which, he said, he has grown “just for fashion” rather than in homage to the Rastafari movement. His flowing shirt and baggy trousers make him look like a desert Bedouin, but they are tailor-made by Sasson Kedem, an Israeli fashion designer. A traditional hamsa pendant never leaves his neck.

In both music and fashion, Mr. Raichel reflects a blend that fits his hopes for a more open society, particularly within the fractured Middle East. While he insists that his aspirations are purely musical and not political, he seemed happy to be drawn into discussing some sensitive political issues. One of his dreams, he said, would be for Israelis to consider one day electing a non-Jewish leader.

“I believe that everything is possible, even if it will probably take two more generations for Israel to be ready for this,” he said. “What matters to me is not so much whether there actually is ever a non-Jewish prime minister, but whether Israeli society can reach the point where there is no fear at such a thought.”

Mr. Raichel’s own sphere of influence is music, which, he said, has to be kept “absolutely open to everybody.”

In some cases he has worked alongside musicians with whom he has little in common in terms of political and social views.

“Acceptance is the ability to live with somebody with whom you cannot in fact agree on a single thing,” he said.

Mr. Raichel’s call for tolerance comes hand-in-hand with a belief in duty to his country. He recently ruffled feathers among Israel’s artists by saying that he could not call Israeli anyone who dodged military service by faking medical problems.

“I got attacked by musicians and others who believe that serving in the army should be a matter of choice,” he said. “But I believe that if you want more choice, you need to work to change the law rather than lie about your health.”

Mr. Raichel, who is 33, grew up in a secular family in Kfar Saba, a small town outside Tel Aviv, but with several Orthodox Yemenite families living on the other side of the street.

His interest in other cultures, however, was only genuinely aroused after he completed his military service, when he taught music in a school filled with immigrants from Ethiopia. Working with children there highlighted for him the stunning ethnic diversity within Israeli society.

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