What would happen if you were to put Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Indian band The Rajathan Express and Israeli musician Shye Ben Tzur in the Mehrangarh Fort in India for three weeks? The answer is Junun. The trio collective’s eponymous album recorded in the spring of 2015 strangely blends the music of the West and the East. Performing in many European cities this year, Shye Ben Tzur and The Rajathan Express will also visit Istanbul as part of Istanbul Jazz Film Festival organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts. We talked to Shye Ben Tzur before his concert at Kundra, Beykoz on July 7.
Junun is a quite profound album. On the one hand, there is The Rajasthan Express, and on the other is Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. How did you keep the balance in the songs?
It’s a tough question. Junun is based on North Indian music aesthetics. A lot of it is very much corresponding with the Qawwali tradition. I’ve composed the pieces in this manner. So for the musicians from The Rajasthan Express, it was quite easy to understand how the melodies unfold. When Johnny Greenwood came into the production, he really liked it. He didn’t want to take over the delicacy of the Indian movements in the music by adding Western musical elements. Big part of Western music depends on harmonies and chord changes. In Indian music, you don’t have these sorts of movements. So, he brought different elements and he was referring to his guitar more as a part of the rhythm section.
How was working with Jonny Greenwood and Nigel Godrich?
It’s been fabulous. It’s been a great experience and it was very inspiring as well. Nigel and Jonny have been working together for 20 years. So, they brought this working dynamic into the recording process. That was very beautiful. Both of them have very adventurous attitudes. Instead of just trying to make things sound good, they wanted things to be exciting as well – which is something that usually people tend to do less.
You did the recording in Mehrangarh Fort in India. How did the location affect the music?
I was surprised, to that sense, that it does affect. Because if you’d asked me before, I’d tell you that “It should be sounding great and feeling like that everywhere.” But being in a such place affects you. You see that in all the musicians. Everybody was very attentive and we came up with new ideas. Everybody was in the zone of something fresh. While we were working for three weeks, we also lived there. So, it was quite intense.
I read that you fell in love with Indian music almost immediately and decided to go deeper into it. What makes Indian music so special for you in terms of style and philosophy?
It’s like when you fall in love with a person. It’s not always because of their character. Sometimes you meet people that have the best character but you just feel okay with it. Sometimes you meet people that have a lot of flaws in their character, but in your eyes, they’re beautiful. You cannot do anything about that. So, that’s what happened to me when I fell in love with Indian music. It attracts me very much because it is not there in order to give any entertainment. It is more of a kind of expression. It offers devotion to God.
There is a song on “Junun” called “Allah Elohim” — named after the Muslim and Hebrew words for “God.” What’s the story of that song?
I have the biggest respect and love for Prophet Mohammad and for all the other prophets as well. And so that is more important than the music in a way. The music is just expression. Sometimes it expresses pain, sometimes it expresses longing. In this specific song, it expresses “unity.”
Paul Thomas Anderson made a documentary about the recording process of Junun. How do you feel about the final outcome and the legendary director?
I was very surprised when Paul was with us. When we were working, everyone was doing their own thing. We were doing the music, Paul was doing his film. And when we finished the process, suddenly we could see each other’s own creative mind and interpretation of that situation. So, I had no idea what Paul was planning. When I saw it for the first time, I was quite shocked. Because there was almost no dialogue, no drama, no heroes. It kept me captivated for almost an hour.
You’re touring Europe nowadays, which includes shows with Radiohead as well. How do you feel about the experience?
It’s been a really powerful experience. We had some very special concerts. Yesterday we played with Radiohead for the first time. That was something very special. I mean, I’m still digesting it. And then, we also had our own concert at Primavera Sound, which was fantastic. I am very grateful for the opportunity to be performing music, meeting different people and seeing different places.
There is an ongoing debate between Radiohead and Roger Waters. Roger Waters urged them not to play at Israel and culturally boycott the state. As an Israeli artist, what is your opinion on this?
I can refer to it as an Israeli but I prefer to refer it as a citizen of the world. I feel that it’s a very important discussion. I think there are a few discussions here. One is the political discussion. The tragedy of the Middle East, the tragedy of Israel and Palestine… That is something to leave for a political conversation. I feel that the really amazing thing about art is to share something beyond our identities. Like the sun shines on all creatures, God gives love to all. And good art can just be as that. You can spread it to all without thinking of agendas. That is the power of it. And I think it’s very much inspiring to see that people just decide to share their art regardless. When I play, it doesn’t matter who’s in the crowd.
What do you think about cultural boycotts? Do you believe that they can actually work?
Now that we are in Europe, some people might hate my background. But suddenly we can connect. Those who hate me today can love me tomorrow. It’s also true the other way around. People who are loving us today may not like us tomorrow. But if you block the people, who believe in peace, from showing up, you actually are helping to those who are opposing it. When people go to concerts, they meet each other because a concert is also a place of meeting. And when people face with a completely different approach, they may also broaden their outlook. So, I feel that boycotts of art, mind and sharing of ideas is a very harmful thing to do for the society.
You’re also excited to visit Turkey. What makes it special for you?
Turkey is one of the places I’m really looking forward to the most. I’ve been in Turkey only once for a few days. And I was shocked, I couldn’t believe it is such a special place. I felt I would like to live there if I could for a time and just create something there. It’s just such a deep place and the culture is so deep. Yunus Emre is one of my favorite poets, Mevlana Celâleddîn-i Rûmî is another. And when I meet someone in Turkey, I feel that it is very easy to connect. It is one of the favorite countries I’ve ever been to. And to perform there would be a great honor. I’m very happy for the opportunity.