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By reaching into the piano and dampening its strings, Raichel was even able to mimic the chunky, funky sound that Vieux Farka Touré sometimes extracts from the lower register of his instrument — a sound inspired, no doubt, by the traditional ngoni lute that his father played as a young man.
That made the first half of the show a very Malian affair, which was nice, since Malian music is some of the most righteous stuff around: driven by infectious rhythms, anchored by hypnotic bass lines and shot through with elaborate improvised melodies. For the most part, Raichel played the role of deferential accompanist, accommodating himself to Touré’s distinctive voice while adding just a touch of his own jazzy, Near Eastern persona to the mix.
Admittedly, things did fall apart somewhat when the Israeli contingent began to assert itself more and a string of guest artists descended on the stage. The Malian singer Awa Sangho was delightful, but Oran Etkin barely had time to warm up his clarinet, and Alex Terrier’s slickly executed soprano sax licks seemed entirely out of place. Yet, if the group lost some of its drive and focus, the evening never quite devolved into the kind of train wreck that can occur when well-meaning musicians from different worlds extend the hand of friendship only to discover that they do not, in fact, have much in common.
That might be because Touré, like Raichel, was willing to venture out of his own musical sandbox and play in someone else’s for a while. But it also has something to do with the fact that if Raichel and Touré don’t speak precisely the same musical language, they do speak mutually intelligible ones. And there is good historical reason for that.
The Songhai Empire that once ruled northern Mali was a major sub-Saharan Islamic state where both Arab and Jewish traders did brisk business. (Its sizable Jewish community was driven underground in the 15th century by an Islamic version of the Inquisition, but the Malian historian Ismael Haidara, founder of an organization called Zakhor — Hebrew for “remembrance” — has traced the Jewish origins of many Muslim families in the region, including his own.) Extensive contact with the Arab world left a deep imprint on Malian music in general, creating similarities that are easy to hear, from keening, melismatic vocals to filigreed melodic ornamentation as finely etched as Arabic calligraphy.
Such musical features also are common to traditional Middle Eastern and North African Jewish music, and for the same reason, just as they are to the melting pot of Arab and Near Eastern Jewish music that is modern Israeli pop. “It was really moving to see every person in the Opera House standing and clapping for a Muslim artist who was coming to Israel to play his music, not afraid of any boycotts. It wasn’t a political statement, it was a musical one,” Raichel told The Jerusalem Post. In fact, it was both: The Touré-Raichel partnership is a symbol of how much the global phenomena we call Jewish and Islamic culture have in common, and of how harmoniously they can combine when given the chance.
So in the end, my qualms about the Collective — that it might be weak at best, or a well-meaning artistic catastrophe at worst — proved unfounded. Instead, the concept worked surprisingly well, both because the big-eared musicians behind it are clearly trying hard to accommodate one another and because they actually have something to build on.
Alexander Gelfand is a regular contributor to the Forward, a recovering ethnomusicologist and a lapsed West African drummer.