When I heard that a West African-Israeli collaborative venture called the Touré-Raichel Collective was going to be performing this month at City Winery, an upscale venue in lower Manhattan, I had serious misgivings. Was I curious? You bet. Was I optimistic? Not in the least.
My wariness had nothing to do with the band’s hyphenated headliners. Touré is Vieux Farka Touré, son of the late world-music icon Ali Farka Touré. Touré père, a Songhai guitarist from the vast northern region of Mali that was recently seized by nomadic rebel and Islamist forces, played an updated version of traditional Malian music that sounded to many Westerners like an exotic form of the blues. Touré fils might lack some of his father’s gravitas — the elder Touré cut his teeth on Songhai spirit possession music, and he never lost that supernatural intensity — but he may be an even more gifted guitar player.
Raichel, meanwhile, is Idan Raichel, an Israeli pop star with extremely wide-ranging tastes. Though strongly marked by the Middle Eastern vibe that characterizes so much Israeli music, Raichel’s work also draws on Latin American and African sounds, and the keyboardist and composer has worked with artists from Colombia to Cape Verde.
So what, you might ask, could possibly go wrong? In a nutshell, plenty.
African music covers a ridiculously large amount of territory, both geographic and stylistic. Collaborating happily with Rwandan or Ethiopian musicians, as Raichel has done in the past, does not guarantee success when attempting to mate (musically speaking, of course) with a master of the Malian desert blues. And while some people see broad relationships between Jewish and African music, I’m not so convinced.
Some artists, like the Israeli-born wind player Oran Etkin and the American guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood, have managed to combine Jewish and West African elements with varying degrees of success. But I’ve always thought of those experiments as curiosities rather than as proof of general aesthetic compatibility. As a recent performance by the all-female Guinean drum ensemble, Nimbaya, confirmed, large swaths of African music have nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of Jewish performance tradition. (The group performed as part of the family-oriented “Just Kidding” series at Symphony Space in New York, and the sight and sound of a dozen women beating the hell out of a bunch of djembes and xylophones elicited squeals of delight from the underage crowd.)
I was also not entirely reassured by the Collective’s media-friendly back story. Raichel and Touré met by chance at a German airport in 2008. Raichel wrangled an invitation to play keyboards with Touré at a show in Spain, and the two subsequently performed together at the Tel Aviv Opera House in 2010. That, in turn, led to “The Tel Aviv Session,” an impromptu recording of original songs employing Malian rhythms and Israeli melodies — songs that now form the basis for the band’s live performances. The group also includes Malian calabash player Souleymane Kane and a rotating cast of Israeli electric bassists, making for an evenly split team of Israeli Jews and Malian Muslims.
Charming? Certainly. But two gigs and a studio jam session do not a marriage make, and the possibility of vague, world-music noodling seemed very real.
Within a few seconds of taking the stage in New York, however, the Collective did much to assuage those fears. The quartet was remarkably cohesive, especially when it stayed close to Touré’s Malian roots. It so happens that Raichel used to play along with Ali Farka Touré’s recordings while serving in the Israeli army band, and he therefore came pre-loaded with a Touré-friendly keyboard style.