The Ubiquitous American Culture, or How I Became A Roman

What does Herod the Great and Israeli, world-pop sensation, Idan Raichel, have in common? Not much really other than the fact that Herod built an outdoor theatre in Caesarea in what is now modern day Israel, and 2,000 years later the Idan Raichel Project played it to a sold-out throng of adoring fans. The theatre at Caesarea has a capacity of 3,500 and sits directly on the Mediterranean Sea near the excavated ruins of the ancient port town of Caesarea Maritima. Built by Herod the Great around the end of the first century BCE it is the earliest example of the construction of an artificial harbor.  It is also one of the few archeological sites, which revealed a reference to a biblical character. Found in the theatre itself was an inscription by Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, dedicating a temple to the Emperor Tiberius. Pilate is of course mentioned in the Christian New Testament as the one who presided over Jesus’ crucifixion trial.

Playing an ancient Roman Era theatre might seem daunting for most musical acts, but for IRP it’s almost necessary. The band was made up of two percussionists, a horn section consisting of trumpet, trombone, and baritone saxophone, four vocalists, three guitar players one who fluidly transitioned from guitar to bouzouki, a flute player who masterfully represented a various assortment of cultural woodwinds, bass, and the band leader, Idan Raichel, who spent the majority of the show behind his piano, only briefly abandoning it for an accordion.

 Despite Raichel as the band leader one could not classify him as the “front man,” though. Others sang entire songs with little more than a few chords pounded out on the piano from him. He spent the entire performance at stage right and often gave way to his band members to enliven the audience. For a heartthrob type he refrained from attempts at arousing the ladies and was genuinely appreciative of the audience’s presence.

The performance and musicianship both deserve high accolades. The musicians were world class and well rehearsed. They seamlessly transitioned from one song to the next masterfully utilizing mood to keep the audience attentive and entertained. This of course is not easy for any performer, let alone one with such broad generational appeal. Those who came to the ancient, Roman theatre ranged from the elderly to youth, and all of them sang along, danced, swayed, and swelled with applause. One would be hard pressed to find an American equivalent. Perhaps Bob Dylan, only Dylan’s songs are rarely intelligible live and thus the only comparison that can be made is that he can claim a broad cross section of generational support. No, the support that the Idan Raichel Project enjoys is without an adequate western comparison.

            Musically, one could draw parallels to Graceland era Paul Simon in that multitudes of musical cultures are gleaned for inspiration. However, where Paul Simon relied on mainly South African Jazz and Gulf State Zydeco to create his masterpiece, IRP casts a much wider net. Songs were sung not only in Hebrew, but Portugese, Spanish, Arabic, and Swahili as well. Genres ranged from traditional western funk, to Middle Eastern folk, to Brazilian dance. The vocalists sported American soulful growls as well as Middle Eastern, quarter tone precision. The Idan Raichel Project melded such a multiplicity of musical cultures you would think we have achieved the cultural respect and appreciation for which all artists yearn. And yet, something of the historicity of the venue itself called attention to the ever-present dominance of one culture over another and made tangible the realization that such dominance has played throughout the millennia.

Entering into the ancient arch-ways and making my way to my seat I was met with the cool Mediterranean breeze that would comfort the audience all evening. Despite a June Israeli night the temperate atmosphere was a reminder of the coast’s historical appeal.  I tried desperately to envisage the Roman culture that would have sat in these same seats some 2,000 years prior. I mined my repository of historical knowledge in an attempt to visualize the performance that would have taken place in front of a Roman assimilated, Middle Eastern audience. I thought of togas, emperors, and legions of soldiers. In a desperate attempt to connect to the past my mind even conjured up Russell Crowe. Alas, not even Hollywood’s sexiest gladiator could get me past the modern dress, and the plethora of cell phones unceasingly recording the event.

I decided to give up. I would only listen to the music, take some notes for my review of it, and move on. I would talk about the genre melding, the moon setting over the sea and behind the stage. I became convinced that history is lost to us even when we dig it up, reconstruct it, write about it, and debate its importance. I was alone in the present. My human ancestors seemed forever lost to me. A sadness accompanied that realization.

Ironically, it was those very artifacts of modernity that finally reconnected me to the past. While initially the stage lights, microphones, t-shirts, and cell phones, contributed to my lack of historical connection, it was those modern elements that ultimately reminded me that while the empire may have changed names, imperialist dominance had remained, and I was the ancient Roman. I was the traveler from the heart of the empire finding most things familiar because my culture sets the bar. My culture dominates. My culture is imitated. Of course, by “my culture” I mean American culture. Every sign was in Hebrew and English. Every cell phone read “Verizon,” “Samsung,” or “iphone..” Every spectator around me spoke fluent English, there was even a man sporting a New England Patriots jersey. When the show was over and the house music came up it was an American song about trying to get laid after a night at the bar. The past had finally become present. I knew what it would have felt like to travel to this place as a Roman citizen 2,000 years ago and witness a performance. Someone in my seat 2,000 years ago felt my same sense of familiarity despite being thousands of miles from home. Someone 2,000 years ago left that theatre pompously claiming to be more worldly from their travels, yet somehow feeling as if they had been slightly cheated.

            What began as a night of experiencing live music along Israel’s Mediterranean coast in an ancient theatre became a reflection of the historical trajectory. From the Roman Empire to the American Empire, culture seems to possess an inherent need to dominate. Perhaps when more people look like us we become less frightened and so naturally we spread our values when given the chance. Or, perhaps it’s less about dominance and more about imitation. Maybe some feel as if they can experience a part of the power by looking like the powerful. Maybe it’s both, and while history has taught us that culture seeks to dominate, history also teaches us that things are rarely monolithic. We do have examples of peaceful, respectful culture exchange, shunning assimilation yet championing communication. The performance in Caesarea this night plays witness to such an historical lesson. In some circles culture is seeking to inform and be informed. Sadly, however, this is not the norm so at the moment I am an American traveler whose culture continuously lies ahead of him.

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