For millennia, musicians have traveled through mountains, deserts and oceans, bringing along their instruments, melodies and influences. Two such wandering musicians, Vieux Farka Touré and Idan Raichel, of the Touré-Raichel Collective, launched the 2012 edition of the Jazz N Klezmer festival in Paris.
While intercontinental collaborations abound, it is no simple matter bringing distinct musical worlds together. On the contrary, it takes subtlety and requires great musical mastery and an absolute connection between the players– skills which Idan and Vieux excel at.
So many obstacles could have stood in the way of this collaboration: Raichel is an Israeli Jew and Touré is a Malian Muslim. While some people spend all their energy rejecting ‘the other’, these two do the opposite.
The story of the Touré-Raichel Collective is certainly uncommon. Who would imagine that a complete chance encounter in a German airport would lead to a jam session in Tel Aviv, followed by a world tour? A mad bet, at best, but there is no denying the magic when the two play together. The pair blends sounds from northern Mali, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. They play a little bit of jazz, some blues. Idan experiments on the piano: He plucks the strings like a harp, rubs them at times or beats them like a drum. On stage, their connection is immediately obvious. They maintain contact by glancing, winking, smiling at each other. There is also no denying the music’s inherent message of tolerance.
I spoke with Idan Raichel and Vieux Farka Touré after their show in Paris.
Nicolas: How does your live act work? To what extent is it improvised and rehearsed?
Idan: Our music is like going on a journey with some milestones here and there. We have some melodies we know we can lean on. Then we go on stage and we see how we can play in the moment as much as we can.
Nicolas: How did you guys meet? How was this project born?
Vieux: You know what they say about musicians: they always travel. We spend most of our time in hotels, on planes or on stage. We met by accident at the Frankfurt airport. Idan knew my music, as he liked Malian music, but honestly I didn’t know anything about the music in Israel. But I was quite happy to meet someone from there and we became good friends. Some months later, he invited me to play with him at the Opera House in Tel Aviv. It really made our friendship stronger. At the end of the show, I told him: “it’s too early to sleep, let’s have fun!” He took me to his studio. There, some friends of his were coming in and out, making tea… while we were playing.
Then, after a few hours, we just went to bed. Later Idan called me and said: “You know, we could make an album out of that.” I thought: “This guy’s insane!” I told him: “How could this be an album? We didn’t prepare anything. We simply played music.” But he insisted. So he started to edit the recording. Then I sent him a couple of overdubs and that was it. Only two songs were actually made later. The rest of the album comes from this beautiful night we had together. We never thought we would make an album. We were playing for ourselves, which is why this album is so strong.
Nicolas: I have to be honest with you. I’m aware of both your work and when I first heard about your project, I thought that it wouldn’t work, that your individual music was too far apart. But actually, it sounds very natural. How do you explain it?
Idan: First of all, it’s about two musicians who are open to explore different regions, different musical parts. And we go to the basics of music ingredients. It’s like cooking. If you put a chef from Italy and the Philippines together, they will always use salt, sugar or water. It’s like going to the deepest common ground. For me, it was natural. I grew up playing piano and listening to Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré [all prominent Malian musicians] or Eastern African artists like Mahmoud Ahmed. I was also happy that Vieux was ready to open his heart and to look at me only as a musician, no matter where I came from. You know, our countries don’t even share embassies!
Nicolas: Precisely. What does it mean to you being Jewish and Muslim and playing together?
Vieux: You know in this world, people get all worked up over silly things, really. I’ve met many people who pay attention to the colour of your skin, where you come from, who you are… but these things really don’t matter. If Idan and I had behaved in such a way, we would have never made any music. Frankly, I hope that many people will do the same thing as we’ve done, whether they’re from Mali, Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. I hope people realize that religion doesn’t make a person. Everyone’s free to do what they want. If water is your god, good for you, but it shouldn’t keep you from being with others. Idan and I both practice our religion but this has nothing to do with our friendship and our work. We’d just like people to get united.
Idan: Jewish and Muslim people used to live together for hundreds of years in Irak, Iran, Syria or Jerusalem, Haifa. The conflicts known around the world are actually conflicts between states. They’re political conflicts. As a Jewish person, I feel I’d be welcome in Mali, Mauritania or any place around the world.
Check out this segment of their performance at the Jazz N Klezmer festival and listen to their interview on Shtetl on the Shortwave.
The Touré-Raichel Collective released The Tel Aviv Session (Cumbancha) earlier this year.
Nicolas Roux has had a love affair with music ever since he was conceived. He’s a keen oolong tea drinker too. When he’s not busy attending some random concert, he writes in the arts and culture sections of various magazines around the world. You can read his writings on culture and music at nicolasroux.com