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August 19, 2022

The Idan Raichel Project - Last Week Live

By ADI ELBAZ | April 1, 2009

George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium housed a chaotic enactment of an ethnic truism this past Wednesday night: All Jews know each other. Certainly, the majority of the audience for world-renowned Israeli fusion band The Idan Raichel Project was, in fact, Jewish.

As we waited for the will call line to thin, we witnessed at least three reunions: girls with straightened hair flying at each other, shrieking "I haven't seen you since [Jewish summer camp]." Though the venue was a college auditorium - albeit an opulent one - a significant percentage of the audience seemed to be over 40 years old.

There was something bizarre about the juxtaposition of this formal, lavish setting - velvet chairs, uniformed ushers - and the palpable excitement in the air, as if the people jostling in their seats knew they were about to see a really good show. At 20 past eight - "We're running on Jewish time!" the lady behind me explained to her husband - the lights dimmed, and a mighty roar went up. First, the percussionists sauntered onstage, then the wind instruments, the vocalists and finally Idan Raichel himself, an Ashkenazi Jew from Kfar Saba, with dreadlocks to his waist and a pot-lazy smile. All the singers were of diverse ethnic origin, a point Idan likes to call out at the beginning of each concert, introducing his team by their name and their country of birth.

Having recorded with over 70 artists worldwide, from Mali to Ethiopia to Colombia, Idan Raichel's Project prides itself on the diversity of its members and of its sound, like a singing United Nations. Between their three albums, they've recorded songs in Zulu, Spanish, Amharic, Swahili, Cape Verdean Creole, several dialects of Arabic, Caribbean languages I couldn't begin to name, and, of course, Hebrew.

The Project settled in, ignoring the whooping, and launched immediately into "Sheriot Shel HaChayim (Remnants of Life)" from their third, recently released album Ben Kirot Beiti.

The audience whistled and clapped hard but was too nervous to flock to the stage; this regrettable timidity would continue until midway through the concert. To signify his displeasure with us, Raichel - in an unprecedented move - rose from his perch at the keyboard and did a goofy little dance.

The three vocalists had already linked hands and were dancing, barefoot, as the Georgian percussionist began playing a bowl of water. The Idan Raichel Project never just plays a concert, they give you a show.

The power of the live concert lies in the layering of sounds; what seems one-dimensional on CD is transformed by several different harmonies, some in different languages, and by the gradual introduction of unlikely instruments like darbukas, ouds and flutes. By the end, the simple melody swells to a piercing crescendo then quiets to one lingering note. The terpsichorean frenzy began with "Brong Faya," ("Burn Fire") one of the catchiest tunes from the first album. Within seconds of the opening chord, the audience was on its feet, dancing like maniacs: older Yemenite women belly dancing, college students doing the more traditional bump-and-grind. The audience clamored to touch one of the vocalists, or better, Raichel himself, like pilgrims at some saintly tomb.

The Project blazed through about 25 songs before jogging off stage. Most notable of the songs was "Rov HaShaot (Most of the Hours)," a Hebrew love song with catchy Eastern inflections, and the slow Moroccan-Arabic plaint "Mi Nhar Li Mishti (From the Day You Left)," which left the audience rapt.

As they sang, pictures of people - Jews with side curls and Muslim women in headscarves, but mostly people of no discernible ethnic or religious affiliation - were projected in the background, revolving slowly. Though they have no overt political message, it may have been The Project's way of addressing the problems of their fractious country. As the show wound down, each member would quietly put down his instrument and tip-toe, unobtrusively, offstage. Within a minute, the Hebrew and English shouts of "one more time" bolstered them back on stage for two encore songs.

We finally left, exhausted, thrilled and ready for the next show. Predictably, on our way out, we ran into two good friends we hadn't seen in years.

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