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Shye Ben Tzur: Music For The Upliftment of the Soul

Shye Ben Tzur: Music For The Upliftment of the Soul
Nenad Georgievski By

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The Urdu word Junun denotes "Passion"and that is the perfect term to describing not just the breathtaking interplay and common purpose among the many diverse musicians taking part in this project, but also the deep spiritual love that emanates from this music and takes up everyone in the excitement of the moment: playful, joyous and inclusive. Junun is a dynamic meeting of passionate musicians with different backgrounds and geographies but the result to that is gorgeous music. Shye Ben Tzur has spent a lot of time in India where he devoted himself to studying classical and vernacular music in Rajasthan. Most of these songs were written by him with lyrics written in Urdu, Hindi and Hebrew and this music draws plenty from these traditions especially from the Sufi devotional music named Qawwali. When Ben Tzur and Greenwood decided to collaborate they decided to enlist the Rajahstan Express, a group that combined three strains of traditional music that not usually performed together: Qawwali, Manganiar court music, and a big, boisterous Rajasthani brass band. When they went to record the album at an abandoned fort, they were joined by producer Nigel Godrich and film director Paul Thomas Anderson. All of this resulted in music that resonates with an undeniable passion that registers on a deep and universal level.

After premiering Junun at a concert in Barbacan Hall in March 2016, Ben Tzur, Greenwood and the Rajahstani Express will perform in London at the Illuminations Festival. The performance will also include a screening of the Junun documentary and a photography exhibition from the recording sessions. This will be a start of a tour that will take them to Turin, Lausanne, Milan, Rome, and Berlin, before concluding at Le Guess Who? Festival in the Netherlands.

All About Jazz: What was it about the sounds of Indian music that compelled you so much to explore it so deeply in your music?

Shye Ben Tzur: Yes, Indian music has changed my life. I first heard it when I was 19 which was a long time ago. After I heard this music at a concert of Indian music I decided to go to India in order to learn something about it. I just never imagined that I will stay there for most of my adult life. I have lived there for more than 15 years and now I'm spending time between India and Tel Aviv. I spend a lot of time in India so it's been more than 20 years for me. I'm still exploring this music and I'm still learning, so this (Junun) is an attempt or an expression of different experiences and feelings that have emerged during this experience.

AAJ: How did the Junun project come about?

SBT: A few years ago, Jonny Greenwood somehow came to know about my music. He had heard it and I got a phone call from an acquaintance who told me that Jonny has heard my music and asked whether If I was interested in meeting him. I was very happy to and it was an exciting idea so we met but without any agendas. Jonny is extremely curious artist and musician. He is quite amazing. We just met as two musicians to discuss different elements of music and approaches to music. And it was a very beautiful meeting and the beginning of our friendship. We kept in touch and that was a few years ago without any thought of doing something together. At some point, I performed with some Rajasthani artists in London and Jonny joined us as a guest artist. It was so enriching and inspiring that we thought, ok, that was very short and maybe we should find a way to actually sit and do something and play together. So, making an album was a great excuse to do that. So we basically thought to sit and spent time in a creative environment. With this idea in mind, it was clear to us that the best place to do that would be in India where we can actually sit with the artists that I love so much.

And Jonny was also very keen to meet and work with different musical elements. By grace, we got offered to spend time at the Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur. So things just emerged and then we spent there for three weeks almost a month when Paul Thomas Anderson, with whom Jonny has closely worked with, heard that we were going on such a journey, so he wanted to join. And when Nigel Godrich heard it he said he would love to be a part of it. Sharona Katan has designed a lot of the album covers. She is an artist and is Jonny's wife. She is a very accomplished artist by herself. We were also joined by another photographer by the name of Ian Patrick and another guy Arna. He also did a lot of video work which is going to be presented at the exhibition. We were a lot of different creative people in one environment for a few weeks. Each one interpreted this time spent together in his own way and somehow it came together as what we hear and see as Junun.

AAJ: What are some of the challenges you faced in gathering this group of people, writing music and making all of the different elements to work together?

SBT: The songs themselves were written during a time span of several years. The arrangement and the production were something that was happening during that time that I'm describing. All of the compositions follow, to a certain degree, the rules to North Indian music. I've been studying a lot of Indian classical music but the majority of the work I have done, even before Junun, is devoted to folklore. My passion is folklore music of Rajasthan or Qawwali which is the Sufi music of South East Asia of the Chishti order of Sufis. So, within the realm of this sort of music, all of the compositions are basically corresponding to the rules and regulations of that type of culture. The idea was how not to corrupt it somehow by bringing other elements of Western music. We had a lot of discussions about that, Jonny and myself. Jonny came up with a lot of different ideas and concepts, and I think one of those was not to impose Western harmonies.

A lot of the aesthetics in North Indian music are within a scale and within the raga system which is a system of musical scales and chord changes and harmonies. That is something we decided if we'll use harmonies and chords it would be very minimalistic at certain points. A lot of the work that Jonny brought about concerned different polyrhythmic lines with the guitars that were also corresponding with the musical scales like in Junun. We are all playing in a certain rhythm and the guitar lines are in a very different rhythm patterns in it. It creates some sort of contrast which does not exist necessarily in Indian music but it is not visible as much in Western music in a way that forces things and takes them out of the context. We were working with different sounds. I would say, there was a lot of thought given to the delicacy of things of how not to impose one culture upon another. We were trying to create something that is homogenous and yet to have roots in Indian music and also to have a home in contemporary music in the West.

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