An unplanned meeting between two world music heavyweights while both were on tour, traveling through a German airport, led to The Tel Aviv Session, possibly the most aggressively ingenious fusion record that I've ever heard, and one that raises the bar for all world fusion music from here on out.
It's no surprise, really. Idan Raichel, a household name in Israel, has well established himself as one of the most adept fusionists in the world. His Idan Raichel Project records, an eponymous 2006 record and 2009's Within My Walls, as well as two earlier Israeli releases, focused heavily on finding common ground between performers of different cultures, languages, and musical traditions, and then making something listenable and audience-friendly out of the whole thing. He has a real touch for making obscure sounds into pop music, in the very best sense of the term: his music is unapologetically smooth, but bears a warmth and depth that audiences around the globe can connect with.
Vieux Farka Toure, son of the legendary Ali Farka Toure, is heir to one of West Africa's most popular musical legacies, one that's as beloved at home in Mali as it is on the world stage. Hardly one to follow in his father's footsteps, though, Vieux has been cutting his own path: it's edgier than his father's, certainly more modern, and bearing the unmistakable mark of youthful seductiveness.
So, back to this meeting in the airport. Apparently, Idan, who is hard to miss with his copious dreadlocks and large black turban, came across Vieux in an airport in Germany and laid out some effusive praise for Vieux, Ali, the musical scene in Mali in general, and so on. Says Vieux: "When I first met Idan he looked like a crazy hippie to me. But he carried himself with a lot of confidence. He was cool and relaxed. I knew there must be something powerful about this guy. Then the minute we first played together, I knew that I was right. He has deep talent and a deep soul." And from Idan: "I have a dream. I will leave my band and come join yours as a keyboard player. I don’t care if I get paid or anything, I just want to follow you around and see how you do it." And then he did. And after a couple of years of intermittently sort of showing up and being in the band, Idan hooked Vieux up with a gig in Tel Aviv. While he was in town, they thought they'd go in the studio and noodle around a bit.
Also in the studio? Yossi Fine, an Israeli bass player who is a long-time friend and mentor of Idan's and who also produced Vieux's second record, Fondo (and to whom I'd like to publicly say Dude! You could've introduced them sooner!) and Souleymane Kane, a percussionist from Vieux's band.
This stripped-down quartet spent a day in the studio (just for fun, originally), jamming, trading songs and licks, and ultimately creating an intercultural freeform acoustic masterpiece. It's largely instrumental, with Vieux's guitar and Idan's piano sharing the spotlight. A handful of special guests were called in after the fact to add extra layers of sound on a few tracks, notably Ethiopian-Israeli singer Cabra Casey, who wrote and sang a set of Tigrit-language lyrics on "Ane Nahatka," and French harmonica virtuoso Frederic Yonnet, who recorded an appropriately elegant and bluesy harmonica line on "Toure."
Ultimately, it's just a magnificent record. Too often, fusion can seem frivolous -- more a self-serving project for the players rather than something created for the audience -- but that's not the case here. Well, maybe it is, just a bit, as there was apparently no actual record planned from the outset; it was sort of an organic next step for some guys who just loved jamming together, and who play together like ballroom dancers dance -- with a quick anticipation of the next move, an instinctive knowledge of what the other might do next. It just so happened that it sounded glorious this time around. Lucky us.
If you insist on just downloading a few tracks, make it the churning bluesy lullaby "Bamba" (Sample/Purchase Download), the plaintive and rich "Alkataou" (Sample/Purchase Download), and the oddly addictive epic "Alem," which features Mark Eliyahu on the kamanche, an Azerbaijani fiddle (Sample/Purchase Download). But really, do yourself a favor and just buy the whole thing.