Singer and composer Shye Ben Tzur was born in Israel but has had a strong affinity for the sounds of India since he was a teenager. After witnessing a performance by Zakir Hussain and Hariprasad Chaurasia, he fell under Indian music’s spell and has since spent his career chasing after the things that make it tick. Ben Tzur rapidly developed an interest in dhrupad then qawwali musics, taking up the tongue in which these styles are sung as well as using his native Hebrew to bend it to his will. Whenever he struck up a professional relationship with another singer, quick crash courses in pheonetic Hebrew and Urdu would be in order as Ben Tzur found himself wandering further and further into Sufi music traditions.
In addition to a having a group of guest vocalists who probably don’t have a translation for the poetry they’re singing, the building blocks for the sound of Shye Ben Tzur’s new collaborative effort Junun come from an impromptu team of Indian musicians called the Rajasthan Express. The six brass players, the four percussionists, and the two string players are drawn from different circles in the Rajasthan music scene. As Shye Ben Tzur puts it, “they would never normally play together.” So you have singers singing in an, at best, an adoptive language and a room full of musicians who are not accustomed to playing with one another. Now, add Jonny Greenwood, Nigel Godrich and Paul Thomas Anderson to the mix and you have a whole lot of proverbial fish flopping around out of the water.
In addition to playing guitar for Radiohead and scoring for Paul Thomas Anderson movies, Greenwood is a musically curious person. He may not have the same laser-beam focus that Shye Ben Tzur has for Indian music, but Greenwood’s wandering ear provides him with plenty of extra-curricular adventures. When Greenwood and Ben Tzur met, they were convinced that they could wring a good collaboration out of their overlapping interests. When it came time to record Junun, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich recorded the sessions while filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson filmed them. All 21 musicians involved holed up in an abandoned fort, enduring blackouts and malfunctioning equipment in order to bring us a double album of swirling, hypnotic sounds captured mid-air. It’s not for the spas, either. As Greenwood himself puts it, “When Westerners go to record in India, I feel there is often the wring kind of reverence to the music. It tends to be very gentle and carefully recorded.” Well, get ready for a swelter.
Junun is one of those double albums that did not need to be pressed as a double album. Lumped together, the two CDs total 13 tracks in the span of just 60 minutes. The music might not necessarily be divided by any kind of theme (a song from disc one is reprised on disc two, the latter rendition showcasing the brass section with no vocals), but an album cleaved in such a way suggests we are to approach it like a coin in some manner. The song that enjoys the two aforementioned slots is the title track. Kicking off the first disc, the rhythm section wastes no time getting the train rolling with a heavily detailed yet groovy beat that sounds like something Godrich and Radiohead might have cooked up with a beatbox. When the beat slows down, Shye Ben Tzur settles from a high-range prayer incantation to a nagging melody sung in unison with the horns. Jonny Greenwood, in the meantime, sounds off the occasional note. If you find that a bit meager, he has his reasons: “…there are no chords in Indian music, no major and minor.” He likens the Junun experience to that of a James Brown record, where the horns and rhythm steer the ship. Indeed, after you spend a few days with Junun, with the natural ambiance of the recording space and all the beats and notes snuck in between the main modes, you will easily forget the fact that Indian music isn’t calibrated to Western scales. You’ll just be humming along to what Ben Tzur is singing. You’ll be tapping your toes to what the rhythm section is pounding. You’ll be enjoying the soundtrack to a film that you don’t really need to see.
“Roked”, the one track that was leaked by Nonesuch just prior to Junun‘s release, plays tricks on you with its minimal approach. Like the “Junun” track, it begins with a beat that sounds like it could double as a beatbox creation. The melody line is clear and distinct, even if precise notes aren’t being sung. As more voices join, the recording space’s natural echo takes the sound away, giving you the impression that “Roked” is so much more than it really is. But that’s one of the beautiful things about taking your own little road-less-traveled. For Greenwood and the members of the Rajasthan Express, the simple stirring together of a few elements can make a brew that is as intoxicating as it is fresh. Junun should go down as something far more than an intellectual curiosity or the patronage of another culture’s “exotic” sounds, it should also go down as a downright enjoyable piece of music that can’t help color the air as well as move the feet.