The Idan Raichel Project at the Somerville Theatre

I walked into the Somerville Theatre on January 30th knowing only three songs by The Idan Raichel Project. Based on that, I’d say that I was underprepared for the concert. But that seems to be about the extent of their repertoire—three truly excellent songs.

The concert began with speeches by Meir Shlomo, Consul General of Israel to New England, and the Mayor of the City of Somerville, Joseph Curtatone. The Consul, speaking in a heavy Israeli accent, wanted to talk about the importance of bringing Israeli culture both to Israelis who live here and Bostonians with a yen for Israel. The mayor of Somerville, speaking in a heavy Bostonian accent, wanted to talk about how Somerville is the place for happening concerts like this one.

The idea behind The Idan Raichel Project is a fusion of Ethiopian folk music with Israeli pop. It comes from Idan Raichel’s experience as a counselor in a boarding school in Israel, where he worked with the Ethiopian, Russian, and Israeli children. The effect is impressive. Not only does Raichel bring Ethiopian instruments and beats into his band, he brings in Ethiopian singers—Cabra Kasai and Avi Wassa—for a more genuine sound. Both singers were born in Ethiopia but grew up in Israel, adapting to the culture around them while maintaining their roots. One sign of their assimilation is Wassa’s first name, Avi, which is Hebrew, but was originally Wogperas, an Ethiopian name.

In addition to the two Ethiopian singers, Maya Avraham, an Israeli, was on hand. The three of them dominated the show. Dressed entirely in white, they sang in Amharic (Ethiopia’s dominant language) as easily and as well as they sang in Hebrew, which was very good. Kasai and Avraham displayed tremendous dancing skills while Wassa chose a more subdued vocal style. The three songs that the group performed were repeated a few times, changing just the words each time, and were quite amazing. In particular, Raichel’s songs “Come” and “If You Go,” both off of the group’s album The Idan Raichel Project, were huge hits with the audience.

The person who was not a huge hit, surprisingly, was Idan Raichel himself. He had very little stage presence, and spent most of the concert hunched over his keyboard as if it belonged to a computer, occasionally brushing his signature dreadlocks out of his face. His guitarist was similarly inactive. However, both of his percussionists, the one on standard drums and the one on Ethiopian instruments, had very fun solos.

Although the concert was brief (one hour and forty minutes, including encores) and Raichel did not work the stage with his body, the music did pack a punch, even for those who understand no Hebrew (a good part of the crowd) or Amharic (probably the whole crowd).