It was a surreal experience when Israeli singer, songwriter and bandleader Idan Raichel stepped onto the stage as the opening act of the fifth Ethiopian Music Festival in Addis Ababa. This was January 2006, and Raichel had only discovered Ethiopian music a few years before while working at a boarding school for troubled teens in Tel Aviv. When he began experimenting with a fusion of Ethiopian, Israeli, Arab, and other rhythms from around the world in his basement studio, he knew it would be an uphill battle to get the music heard, but he persevered. Surprisingly, the first album by the international collective he put together went platinum in Israel, propelling The Idan Raichel Project into the global spotlight. His forward-looking music resulted in an invitation to play in Addis Ababa, and the artist who extended it was legendary Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed— another musician known for his ability to create unexpected fusions of diverse musical styles. The group had already planned to play in Ethiopia, but Ahmed’s call was a pleasant surprise. “It was a great honor to meet him,” Raichel says by phone from his home in Tel Aviv recently. “Cabra Casay, one of our lead singers, has family in Ethiopia, but she was born in a refugee camp in the Sudan, so this was her first time back home. Another singer, Wagderass Vese, left his family behind [in Ethiopia] when he came to Israel at age 14, so our trip was a big homecoming.
“We were lucky because we’d taken along a film crew to document Cabra’s return home. The film will be called Home: Backward and Forward, and deals with the challenges refugees face in defining their identity. Do they consider themselves Ethiopian or are they Israeli? This is an ongoing question. Israel is a melting pot, with people from many cultures living side by side. When people immigrate, they often have identity problems and try to forget where they came from, especially the teenage kids. They tend to adopt an American hip-hop identity. When I was working with kids in the boarding school, music was an important way to get to know them better. I thought if I expressed an interest in their culture, it would help these Ethiopian kids keep their own roots alive.”
The kids shared their cassettes of Ethiopian reggae, jazz, pop, and folk by artists like Mahmoud Ahmed, Aster Aweke and Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw—sounds that captivated Raichel and inspired him to start investigating the country’s rich musical heritage. He went to Ethiopian bars and clubs and visited Ethiopian synagogues, weddings and traditional ceremonies. “I got especially interested in the village music of Et