‘Artists’ Voices Should Be Heard’
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‘Artists’ Voices Should Be Heard’

World-music show featuring Israel’s Idan Raichel and Mali’s Touré draws BDS fire, and a cultural counter-punch.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

This should have been a story just about music, about a fruitful and enticing cross-cultural collaboration between an Israeli pop icon and the scion of an African musical dynasty. Instead, we begin with a battle of petitions and committees, pitting the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against supporters of the State of Israel.

We should be talking about the Raichel-Touré Collective, the ongoing partnership of Idan Raichel, a Jew, the Kfar Saba-born singer-keyboardist, and Vieux Farka Touré, a Muslim, the Malian guitar virtuoso and son of legendary musician Ali Farka Touré. The group is touring in support of its second album, “The Paris Sessions,” and will be performing here on Tuesday, Nov. 18, in a concert presented by the World Music Institute.

However, on Nov. 4, Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel delivered a letter signed by over 4,000 individuals and 50 organizations calling on the WMI to cancel the concert “due to Raichel’s role as a cultural ambassador for Israel who provides ‘uncritical support for the Israeli military and government.’” The letter was referring to Raichel’s endorsement of the U.S.-based group Thank Israeli Soldiers, and his frequent appearances at IDF bases. Among the signatories on the letter is Robert Browning, a founder of the WMI.

Adalah-NY has clashed with Raichel’s fans before in a confrontation outside one of his 2013 concerts in Manhattan.

The Institute’s new artistic director, Par Neiburger, has been in his position a mere two weeks. When asked by The Jewish Week, he declined to comment on the petition or the possible boycott. The WMI board also declined when asked for a statement.

Inevitably, the Adalah-NY petition triggered a reaction from a pro-Israel, anti-BDS arts organization, Creative Community for Peace, which claimed 26,000 signatures in support of the event. CCFP’s letter read, in part, “Creative Community For Peace (CCFP) applauds the scheduled performance of Idan Raichel and Malian guitar virtuoso Vieux Farka Touré as a celebration of cultural exchange between nations. … Regrettably, your attempt to fulfill your mission has provoked an attack by those who do not share our mutual passion for the arts and the dialogue it promotes.”

When this latest duel of celebrity letterheads has ended, what will remain is the music. Perhaps the WMI’s decision to avoid becoming a football tossed between opposing points of view is not a bad one. At the very least, it means that when you speak with Neiburger, as I did last week, he talks about the music and the musical mission of the Institute.

“It’s a very interesting collaboration,” he said in a telephone interview. “Touré is the son of one of the most recognized African musicians of all time, and he’s doing an incredible job of carrying on his father’s music lineally. His father didn’t want him to become a musician, but he continued in the tradition because he felt compelled to do so.”

As for Raichel, Neiburger said, “Coming from Israel, he spent a lot of time becoming influenced by Ethiopian music, so he’s got a background in an African musical tradition as well.”

Raichel first met Touré purely by chance in the Berlin airport when both were changing planes during 2008 tours. They felt an immediate affinity, Raichel recalled in response to questions from The Jewish Week.

“I was thinking it was time for me to take a break from my band [the Idan Raichel Project], and to play again for other people, and I played for him at a festival in Spain,” he said this week. “A week later I invited him to play with me at the Tel Aviv Opera House.”

They ended up in a jam session that became their first recorded collaboration, “The Tel Aviv Session.”

“Playing with him for the first time in Spain was great, it felt really organic,” Raichel said. “That’s why I invited him to play with me at the Opera House and we continued to the jam session.

“The reason the chemistry between us is so good is that we’re coming from the same place. We both love traditional music, we love the place[s] we are coming from, and we want to share it with the world and with other artists.”

What kind of adjustments does a cross-cultural collaboration call for from such strong individual voices?

When asked that question, Raichel is philosophical rather than specific, saying, “We need to keep our eyes and ears open all the time. And hearts, all the time. The challenge is always to keep things as relaxed as they were at the jam session, not to plan too much, to keep the dialogue open.”

Practically speaking, though, how does that work?

“The working process for this kind of collaboration, the starting point, is mostly just to get in the same room somewhere during the year,” he said wryly. Coordinating the schedules of two very popular globe-spanning musicians is no small trick, but Raichel says that since each plans his working life at least a year in advance, they have managed it.

“When you get together and pick up your instruments,” he added, “It’s like resuming a phone conversation with an old friend.”

That process is no doubt helped by Raichel’s almost compulsive need to collaborate with artists from other cultures. As he noted, he has played with 90 musicians in the past decade from nearly as many countries, collaborating with players from Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Colombia, the United States, Surinam, France and India, among others. Earlier this month he received the MTV Role Model Award from Alicia Keys for his musical efforts to promote international understanding across cultures.

Raichel had no compunction about addressing the boycott issue.

“I don’t think anyone should boycott artists,” he said emphatically. “I think artists’ voices should be heard. I think artists in the Middle East have a role to build bridges between cultures and between neighboring countries.”

The Raichel-Touré Collective will be performing on Tuesday, Nov. 18 at 7:30 p.m. at Symphony Space (95th Street and Broadway). For information go to www.worldmusicinstitute.org or www.symphonyspace.org. The group’s new recording “The Paris Sessions” is available on the Cumbancha label.

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