Western musicians and music consumers have been feeding off a rich diet of cross-cultural sounds for some time now.
World music started becoming a bona fide artistic genre around 30 years ago, exploding onto the international scene in the 1990s, although it must be said that jazz musicians, the likes of American saxophonist-flutist Yusef Lateef and even Duke Ellington, began mining the rich seams of African and Arabic museum decades earlier.
So there is nothing new, per se, in genre terms, in Israeli musician Shye Ben-Tzur’s ongoing collaboration with a bunch of qawwali instrumentalists and vocalists from India, who go by the name of Rajasthan Express. Still, his latest release, the Junun double album, out on Nonesuch Records, makes for captivating listening. Ben-Tzur will celebrate the launch in this part of the world with a concert at the Zappa Shuni Amphitheater near Binyamina tonight (doors open 7:30 p.m.).
The album came out in November and Ben-Tzur, who was born in the United States and came here with his Israeli parents at the age of four, has been doing the rounds of some of the world’s leading venues ever since. Junun has been well received by audiences and critics alike, and was proclaimed World Music Album of the Year by the Sunday Times, with veteran The Times arts journalist Clive Davis remarking that Junun was “border-crossing at its best.”
Ben-Tzur certainly made sure he had all the infrastructure fixings in place, and even got some high-profile presence on board in the shape of Radiohead keyboardist-guitarist Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood, whose wife is Israeli, learned of Ben- Tzur’s output on a foray to this part of the world.
“He was on a trip in the Negev and he heard someone singing all sorts of songs, including one of mine,” Ben-Tzur explains. The Brit was taken with what he heard.
“Jonny asked someone who wrote the song, and then later someone told me that Jonny liked my music and wanted to meet me.”
Things snowballed nicely from there and the two met before too long.
It is intriguing that Greenwood found his way to Indian Sufi music by way of an Israeli musician. Ben- Tzur says that the Briton is always on the lookout for something new.
“One of the most amazing things about Jonny is that, besides being a rock star and an acclaimed musician, he is also very curious. He is always listening to stuff that interests him.
Our first encounter came out of his curiosity about the music.”
Naturally enough, Ben-Tzur’s own Indian musical odyssey also began here, when he caught a concert with feted bansuri (Indian bamboo flute) player Hariprasad Chaurasia at the Israel Festival in the 1990s.
“The music in that show really touched me,” he recalls. “I had been in music since I was a kid and, after that special experience in Jerusalem, I decided I wanted to study Indian music.”
The man was as good as his word, and he has spent much of the past 15 years studying and playing music in India.
If the name Ben-Tzur sounds familiar it is likely that you caught some vibes from his highly successful debut collaboration with the Rajasthan Express gang, Heeyam, which came out in 2003. That was followed by the more stratified 2010 release, Shoshan, which had a rock sentiment to it too. With Junun, Ben-Tzur returns to his second home, India, and in a big way.
The Anglo-Israeli synergy bubbled under for a while before coming to full creative and sonic fruition.
“We met up, but without any sort of agenda to do something together. We just wanted to get to know each other a bit,” recalls Ben- Tzur. The two musicians quickly found common ground, on a personal level too.
“We became friends,” continues the Israeli, “but we didn’t think about working together. Then he saw our show in Australia, and we stayed in touch.”
They didn’t just exchange emails, they eventually made it to the same stage, and the die was cast.
“A few years later we performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, and Jonny appeared as a guest artist. It was great and we realized we should look at doing something more significant together.” And so Junun came to be.
Both the protagonists wanted to make the confluence a worthy and vibrant affair.
“We thought of doing something together, but it wasn’t about popping into a studio in the morning and leaving at night with a record,” Ben-Tzur notes. “The idea was to spend time together and to play music together. A lot of Indian music is live, and its strength comes from it vitality and its drive.
So we wanted to immerse ourselves in that ambiance and to record.”
The next step was to find a suitable location for the recording, and Ben-Tzur got some upper echelon help.
“I knew the Maharaja of Jodhpur [in Rajasthan] – he had been to a few of my shows – and I asked him if he knew of a place where we get together for the recording. There are many beautiful places in Rajasthan.
He offered us space at the [Mehrangarh] Fort in Jodhpur. That was amazing.”
The sonic and visual results of the exercise aren’t too bad either.
Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich soon got in on the act, and he arranged for a shipment of recording equipment accessories to be sent to the ad hoc studio space at the fort. And while the guys got on with the business of putting the double album together, an old pal of Greenwood’s, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, for whom the British musician had written several soundtracks, made a documentary of the proceedings. The film premiered at the New York Film Festival last October, and was screened at this year’s DocAviv Festival in Tel Aviv last week.
The fruits of Ben Tzur’s and Greenwood’s labors are enchanting.
The repetitive element of qawwali music produces an almost hypnotic groove effect, and all those involved clearly felt at ease with the endeavor.
All the songs – in Hebrew, Hindi and Urdu – were written by the Israeli and, with Ben-Tzur, Greenwood and their merry men from Rajasthan, the Shuni audience should be in for quite a trip.
For tickets: *9080 and www.zappa- club.co.il