LONDON – London will be the point on the meridian this Saturday where Israeli, Indian, UK and Pakistani music will blend in a high-energy synergy of styles. The stage of the London Southbank is where the Alchemy festival brings together the world premiere of Israeli singer Shye Ben-Tzur performing Qawwali music – the devotional Sufi chants popular in southeast Asia – with Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.
Ben-Tzur is an Israeli composer, poet and performer whose musical roots lie in Indian classical music but over time and two albums, has evolved to become a byword for a cultural mix of genres, languages and rhythms. A creative pioneer, Ben-Tzur is arguably the first and only singer of Indian subcontinental music in Hebrew. His first album Heeyam (Arabic for “supreme love”) release to great acclaim in 2003, saw Ben-Tzur working with Sufi Qawwali singers.
A debut of this kind had not been seen since Habrira Hativeet’s Origins. Seven years later with the release of Shoshan, Ben-Tzur was heralded as the first Jewish Qawwal by the international press, from India to Israel to the UK.
Although brought up on Western and Middle Eastern music, Shye felt both a personal and cultural connection with the music of India, which he first encountered at a Jerusalem concert between masters Zakir Hussain and Hari Prasad.
“Hebrew is in itself a very old language belonging to the East, so it didn’t seem so strange to me. Qawwali, which is being sung in Urdu, has a mixture of Arabic and Persian and Hindi. So a lot of the words in Qawwali have a common grounding with the base of Hebrew, so it was another thing that made it more familiar,” Ben-Tzur told The Jerusalem Post.
Jonny Greenwood, guitarist from Oxford band Radiohead, may seem like an unlikely candidate for collaboration on such a musical project, but on closer examination of his discography as a composer you can see a number of very innovative recordings and projects beyond the frame of the rock arena. Yet there is still some distance to travel between Oxford and Calcutta.
“The first time that Jonny and I met, the whole introduction was quite surprising, because we didn’t know each other and I remember that I was in Calcutta after giving a concert and a friend of mine, who met Jonny, called me and told me that he had played Jonny my music, which he liked,” said Ben-Tzur. “At a certain point both Jonny and I were in Israel [Greenwood is married to an Israeli woman] and that mutual friend arranged for us to communicate, and I think we first met in the Galilee.”
One would imagine that when two musicians such as these meet for the first time, it would be in the context of a studio or around a range of instruments and that the language would be non-verbal, but Ben-Tzur puts paid to such imagery.
“We didn’t play music when we first met, but we talked a lot about music, different styles, it was a really interesting conversation about Indian classical and traditional music. Jonny was very curious and I was very impressed that he was so knowledgeable about so many different types of music. It was something that I was really touched and inspired by.”
The relationship grew organically from there, and it was still yet going to be some time before the two of them actually played instruments together in the same room.
“After that meeting, we were talking a lot about different musical themes, so we met a few times more and at a certain point the idea to collaborate came to be.”
It may seem an unlikely combination to take one Israeli Qawwali singer and one of UK indierock’s most prolific guitarists and put them together, but music is the quickening art and communicates across the song lines of the world. The fusion fruits of this collaboration have travelled from the River Ganges to the Kinneret and now find their forum at the Southbank of the River Thame