An Ethiopian Jew by birth, Israeli keyboardist-composer Idan Raichel is a man with a mission: bringing to the Tel Aviv scene a younger generation's music that blends a bold variety of Middle Eastern, African, Indian, Latin American and funky hip-hop styles and that trumpets a message of conciliation and peace across the Arab-Israeli gulf.
The dreadlocked Raichel brought his Idan Raichel Project to downtown's Orpheum Theatre on Sunday night in a slick but powerful performance that showcased a nine-member ensemble drawn from a diaspora of sympathetic musical souls.
Conducting from his battery of electric keyboards, Raichel led his crew through a generously long set culled mostly from his two American releases, "Mi'Ma'amakim (Out of the Depths)" and the recent "Within My Walls." The dreadlocked frontman, though, was strangely shy as he ceded the glory of the spotlight to his virtuosic band, which included three singers, two percussionists, a clarinet and flute player and an electric oud player.
Raichel contributed mostly background harmonies and many dazzling electric keyboard flourishes. The rapturous response from the audience, which apparently was largely Israeli, was unlike anything witnessed in recent memory. Their happy chants and claps indicated familiarity with the material and a deep affiliation with its motives.
Most of the players got solo turns, highlights of which were stunningly supple workouts by Eyal Sela on clarinet and flute and by Morocco's Shalom Mor on various string instruments.. Uruguay's Roni Iwryn offered a refreshingly different kind of percussion solo -- he patted and pounded gourds floating in water, then played the water itself.
The Israeli vocalists are the focal point of the band, with soulful strutting from Ethiopia's Cabra Kasai and the stage-savvy Maya Avraham. Ravid Kahalani, a woolly crowned Yemenite with a bracingly gruff voice and a brash, confident stride was especially impressive; he busted some fine dance moves too.
The singers' individual prowess was eclipsed, however, by their brilliant trade-offs in Raichel's deftly crafted interlocking vocal charts.
High drama pervaded most every song, aided immensely by Raichel's alternately atmospheric and high-flying keyboard runs, and the shrewd key modulations, deft dynamics and skipping polyrhythms that charge his well-written material.
He launched the evening with a new song, "She'eriot Shel Ha'Chaim (Scraps of Life)," and things grew only more frenzied as he delivered solidly upbeat, celebratory crowd-pleasers. His Israeli smash "Bo'ee (Come With Me)" and "Mi'Ma'amakim (Out of the Depths)" brought the house to ecstatic whoops and stomps.
"World music" cross-cultural mixing pots can often come off bland and boring, crushed under the weight of their good intentions and liberal politics. Raichel's new equation succeeds because it prioritizes creative new music, with the message of peace flowing from the sound.