The Touré-Raichel Collective at The Rialto

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The Rialto is pitch dark and I’m scribbling notes in my trusty Moleskine, aided only by the shielded glow of my cellphone. Tonight we are being treated to a brilliant collaboration between Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré and Israeli world music star Idan Raichel. Accompanying these two distinguished headliners are international bass-playing sensation Yossi Fine, who played on and produced Touré’s 2009 album “Fondo,” and calabash maestro Souleymane Kane, who hails from the Timbuktu province of Mali — specifically, from Touré’s home village of Niafunké.

Fans of Touré’s  father, world-famous African bluesman Ali Farka Touré, might recognize this locale from the seminal 1999 album “Niafunké” that was named after it. Ali Farka Touré, who passed away from bone cancer in 2006, ranks among the best African musicians of all time, and his work stands up against guitar virtuosos everywhere. His signature guitar-picking style defined his blues-in-Timbuktu sound that masterfully combines African rhythms and instruments with some really fierce blues-tinged guitar playing.

His son Vieux (slang for “old man,” a telling nickname), who defied his father’s wishes and became a musician instead of the soldier he was slated to be, has continued the family blues guitar tradition, albeit in his own way. You no longer get the feeling that you’re hanging out in a bedouin’s tent on the edge of the Sahara, as you inevitably would when listening to Ali’s stuff. The fundamentals are all there, but Vieux puts a more modern spin on things and tends to sound a bit more polished and “studio” in his approach. So instead of chillin’ in a mud hut in Timbuktu, maybe now you’re in a modern flat in Bamako, and your cool dreadlocked Israeli friend says he wants to jam. So let’s do this, then!

As is customary at The Rialto, several cloying heartfelt speeches must always precede the show. One of these is an award acceptance speech given by honored guest and get-’er-done Atlanta City Councilmember Kwanza Hall, who represents District 2 (that’s us here in Downtown!). I like this guy, so I’ll cut him some slack. He greets the audience with the standard Islamic salutation “Wasalaam aleikum” (“Peace be upon you”) in an obvious polite gesture towards Touré’s Muslim background.

The collaboration we’re here to see tonight all started after a chance encounter between these two musicians a few years ago led to a one-off show under the name “The Touré-Raichel Collective.” In 2010, a follow-up jam session in Tel Aviv yielded three hours of raw and inspiring music that was to become the recent (March 2012) Cumbancha release known by the rather uncreative name, “The Tel Aviv Session.” The music itself is a compelling fusion of Israeli and Malian sounds and styles that represents the best kind of cross-cultural collaboration: one in which musicians of different backgrounds meet up at a crossroads to make extraordinary music, that manages to be original while still retaining some essential elements from each culture.

Judging from the reactions and applause levels of the crowd as the collective comes on stage, I’m wagering that about 90% of them must be here to see Raichel, not Touré (which is funny, considering it’s the other way around for me). Raichel is wildly popular in his home country of Israel. His style has always had some element of fusion to it, and in the past he has incorporated a variety of world music influences into his own repertoire, including traditional Ethiopian music, Yemeni vocal stylings, and elements of dub and modern electronica. His talent as an arranger and improvisational musician has lent itself well to a number of collaborations, including his eponymous 2002 debut, “The Idan Raichel Project.”

The first few songs sound a bit off — rusty, somehow, as though the musicians were tuning up instead of actually performing– and I’m starting to wonder if they’re out of practice or if their playing just isn’t up to snuff.  The bass completely dominates the first song, overwhelming Raichel’s barely discernible piano playing. Toure’s signature spiraling little guitar licks get intermittently subsumed, and Kane taps on the calabash with all the enthusiasm of a night-watchman who’s run out of coffee.

It soon becomes clear, though, that it’s not the musicians but the poorly configured sound that’s the source of the problem. The monitors are all out of whack and nobody can hear themselves. It takes several more songs and multiple adjustments before everything sounds as it should: like the perfect melding of disparate cultural influences into a seamless, effortless whole.

I had never heard of Idan Raichel before tonight, and despite doing a little research before the show, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But once I could actually hear his playing, I immediately realized what an extremely gifted pianist Raichel is. He uses some unusual techniques throughout the evening, and he does some things I’ve never seen done before (which actually  blows my mind, but more about that later). What’s more, you can really feel the emotion in his playing. I’ve also never seen a pianist with such an odd, unique posture — legs twisted to the side towards the band, torso facing the piano, arms bent stiffly. Sometimes he plays while standing bent over the keys, other times pacing back and forth while his hands to go town, but he consistently plays with the kind of ease that comes with true mastery of an instrument. I’m really impressed with this guy.

The players are starting to get comfortable, but I still sense some serious restraint. The music is interesting but sounds two-dimensional. There’s a sweet but decidedly awkward vibe about it all, like your first time holding hands with your childhood crush. You almost feel like you’re watching these musicians create something magical for the very first time. Will it work? The suspense is killing me!

Then Raichel does something amazing: standing up, hunched over the keys, he lets one hand continue playing while the other one reaches into the piano and begins to pluck and strum the strings. I’m sure that this has been done before — somewhere, sometime, by some other genius — but I’ve never witnessed anything like it. We continue to see similar wizardry, including repeated applications of a really neat trick, where he mutes the piano strings and continues playing the keys, yielding the blunter, pluckier tone you’d get from a kora or some similar stringed African instrument. Of course this kora-like tone sounds right at home with Touré’s signature brand of bluesy Malian guitar picking. It’s a brilliant combination that really works, in large part because of Raichel’s innovative playing.

The next song, a happy lilting number that would make the perfect soundtrack for a Bamako-to-Tel Aviv train journey (if there was such a thing), has everybody bobbing their heads from side to side. The tune features cascading piano from Raichel, which is nicely accentuated with little guitar flourishes from Touré.  And the calabash player is finally into it! The whole thing retains an informal, relaxed “jam session” vibe — which is, after all, precisely how it began.

Next we get a slightly sinister rocker, with Middle Eastern minor-key melodies for miles but enough calabash to keep the thing firmly grounded in African territory. This is music befitting of an exciting chase scene through the market at Timbuktu. All four musicians provide vocals, and everyone is playing with absolute gusto, just jamming with abandon. The audience is clearly delighted but remains obediently seated, politely bobbing their heads and smiling. I can’t believe how anybody could not dance to this, but the casually posh Rialto definitely isn’t a “dancing in the aisles” sort of venue (with the exception of last year’s enchanting “A Night In Treme” program, which had everybody on their feet by the end of the set).

Some of the same melodies and themes carry through to the next song, probably the standout of the evening. Raichel again performs his muted strings trick, and we get a real Saharan caravan vibe, with ominous undertones that intrigue and thrill. Touré’s flurry of stabbing guitar notes mimics the scurrying, frenzied jabs of violin that always accompany cartoon bumblebees who are about to sting something. Something dangerous is going down, and I wanna be in the middle of it all! The highlight of this track comes when Raichel’s piano and Touré’s guitar begin to mimic each other in a classic call-and-response pattern. Fine continues to shine on bass but surprises us all with haunting vocals that build on traditional Israeli melodies. It all just works.

Next up? Another surprise! Atlanta’s own hometown heroine India.Arie is introduced, and she stands up from a seat in the audience and joins the band onstage, dressed in head-to-toe white and delicately wielding a flute in her left hand. The pensive melody and jaw-dropping calabash playing draw us in as Touré begins to sing. Raichel joins in but sounds somewhat restrained. After playing a few unimpressive flute phrasing throughout the song, India.Arie finally lets loose with some truly goosebumps-inducing vocals. If you can imagine what Lauren Hill might sound like while singing the call to prayer from a mosque minaret, you’ll get the general idea.

India.Arie returns to her seat as the collective launches into a song that’s somewhat repetitive (though not in the good hypnotic kind of way). The only thing that saves it comes at the song’s crescendo, when Touré’s quickening pace provides an effective accompaniment to Raichel’s exuberant banging on the piano in a climax of sound. Then, another trick: Raichel’s left hand keeps playing the melody as he reaches up with his right and begins rhythmically knocking the lid above the keys back against the front of the piano to add another element of percussion to the mix. Amazing.

After another song that begins as a twinkly piano starscape before busting into a slow groove, Touré asks everybody to stand up and clap along to a more upbeat tune. Everyone eagerly stands and gets in on the jam session, as though they’d secretly been waiting for some excuse, any excuse, to drop the library act and just cut loose for once. The grey-haired, hipster-bespectacled, shorts-clad man in front of me has absolutely no rhythm and claps erratically, but the sheer joy on his face leaves no doubt that he’s having a blast. Touré pulls Raichel away from the keys for a moment to do a shuffling African dance; Raichel’s a good sport but quickly retreats to the safety of his stockade of keyed instruments, turning to work his magic on a Hammond organ that, sadly, was sorely underutilized in this show. This flat-out cross-cultural bacchanalia proves to be a fitting finale to a night of unique music.

Just when I think the house lights will come on, we are treated to an encore, featuring another tremendous vocal solo from Fine, eyes closed and hand flapping in the air beside him in ecstasy as his rich, slightly husky voice completely owns yet another traditional Israeli melody. Some of his anguished vocalizations come out like goofy squawks that I can’t help but laugh at, but it all comes together in a freaky-cool Zap Mama kind of way. The calabash continues to lend a distinctly African rhythm, and people just can’t get enough of this whole clapping along thing (looks like we’ve created a monster!). Then India.Arie joins the band onstage again and gives a soulful vocal rendition of the same Israeli melody — in Hebrew, no less! The majority Jewish/Israeli audience goes berserk, and I have to admit that her vocals are flawless and eerily touching. This really will be the final song, and what a magical way to make an exit!

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