Tuesday, November 18, 2014

From Mali to Israel, a Musical Bridge

LARRY ROHTER/The New York Times

The Touré-Raichel Collective takes that collaborative concept into new and less explored terrain. The piano is not usually associated with West African music, and Mr. Touré said that before meeting Mr. Raichel, he had always relied on stringed instruments such as the harplike kora and the ngoni to add color to his music.

Although he loves the sound of the piano, at the start of his association with Mr. Raichel, Mr. Touré found it difficult to adapt to. “When he played, sometimes I had to learn with him,” said Mr. Touré, 33. “ ‘What are you playing?’ I looked at him. You have to pay close attention. But I think the most important thing is to get used to it. Now it’s very easy. We don’t even need rehearsals, we just come together and play, and it’s good.”


In November 2010, Mr. Raichel arranged for Mr. Touré to perform at the Tel Aviv Opera House and then joined him and a rhythm section the next day in a studio jam that lasted more than three hours. The session was recorded more as a keepsake for the participants than anything else, but when the American ethnomusicologist and producer Jacob Edgar, of the Cumbancha and Putumayo record labels, heard the tape, he was transfixed.

“Now that music is so controlled and heavily produced, we don’t really get to hear this raw kind of natural music very often,” Mr. Edgar said. “It was four guys playing live in the studio, totally unprepared and unrehearsed, with no real plan, just sitting down and creating what came out of them” and “able to read each other’s minds, because they were so in tune with what they were doing.”
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After Mr. Raichel spent months editing the music into song form, “The Tel Aviv Session” was released early in 2012 and rose to the top of the Billboard and iTunes world music charts. That led to tour bookings around the world and, eventually, the recording of a second CD, “The Paris Session,” released last month.

The new album, a free-flowing but somewhat more structured effort that has tracks ranging from a prayer sung in Hebrew to love songs in Bambara, French and Songhai (all languages spoken in Mali), was meant to have been recorded in Bamako, the capital of Mali. But the turmoil caused by Islamists associated with Al Qaeda forced a relocation to France, which in turn enabled the collective to incorporate Western instruments like trumpet and flute on some tracks.

Playing together has required some adjustments but also encouraged both men to venture outside their traditions. Mr. Raichel is of Eastern European descent, but heard a lot of Ethiopian and Yemeni music in his teens and is probably best known in Israel for his work in pop music.

In recent years, he has also collaborated with vocalists like the Portuguese fado singer Ana Moura, the German countertenor Andreas Scholl and the Americans India.Arie and Alicia Keys, who describes Mr. Raichel as someone who “bridges cultures and promotes tolerance.” But the partnership with Mr. Touré, Mr. Raichel noted, marks “the first time I’ve done a whole album with the same collaborator” and has taught him to “play the piano not in a conservative way, like classical, but to try to blend it to a new sound.”

For his part, Mr. Touré has worked hard to establish an identity and style different from that of his father, a towering figure in world music who died in 2006. He grew up hearing rock and other Western pop styles, which has “made him a little more adventurous than his father, but also less rooted in tradition,” Mr. Edgar said.

In a nod to Ali Farka Touré’s groundbreaking “Talking Timbuktu,” “The Paris Session” and the collective’s live performances, which on this tour Souleymane Kane on calabash and Yogev Glusman on bass, include a version of “Diaraby,” the best-known song from that album. But in place of the buzzing, riff-laden guitar dialogue of the original track, the Touré-Raichel version emphasizes the song’s crystalline melody and is performed as a simple duet for voice and piano.

Though both artists want to continue to explore the potential that their meshing of styles offers, they are aware that there is also a political dimension to what they are doing. At a moment when the Middle East is in even greater turmoil than usual, with tensions between Israelis and Palestinians especially high, the symbolism of a Muslim and Jew working together is unavoidable, even as some pro-Palestinian groups deride Mr. Raichel as an apologist for the Israeli military.

“People ask me all the time why I am doing this, and I tell them that for me it’s not about religion,” Mr. Touré said. “Your religion is for you, mine is for me, and it’s not because I am a Muslim and he is something else that we did something together. I am open to all music coming from everywhere in the world. We should not say, ‘O.K. I am a Jew, so I will not play with Muslims,’ or ‘I am a Muslim, so I will not play with Christians.’ That’s why we have problems in this world.”

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