Arts and Culture | Israel

Meet the Israeli composer of Indian Muslim music who collaborates with Radiohead’s guitarist

Shye Ben-Tzur, right, playing with Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood at the Sacred Jerusalem Festival, Sept. 1, 2015. (Noam Chojnowski)

(JTA) — For most musicians working in the underappreciated genre of world music, recording an album with Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist of the famed English rock band Radiohead, would be something of a pipe dream.

And what about having that experience filmed by acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master,” “Boogie Nights”)? That would be the icing on a very delicious artistic cake.

Israeli composer and singer Shye Ben-Tzur was lucky enough to make this incredible cake — and now he’s eating it, too.

Last February, Greenwood visited Ben-Tzur — a Jewish composer of Sufi Muslim Qawwali, or religious devotional music — in the Rajasthan region of northwest India, where Ben-Tzur has written and performed his songs for more than a decade. For three weeks, they and a 19-member Indian band, The Rajasthan Express, recorded an album of Ben-Tzur’s songs in a picturesque 15th-century Indian fort.

“We wanted to spend time playing together, not just go into a studio and record an album,” Ben-Tzur told JTA. “Recording the album was maybe the excuse in order to experience the music rather than the other way around.”

Anderson captured the entire process — from the tensions of nailing perfect takes to the pigeons that perched on the soundproofing boards. His film, “Junun,” which translates to “the madness of love,” premiered at the New York Film Festival in October. The director’s first documentary release, it eschews dialogue and wider context for an immersive, behind-the-scenes look at crafting the sprawling album.

The record, produced by longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and also called “Junun,” was released on the American label Nonesuch Records in November. More than half the songs contain lyrics in Ben-Tzur’s native Hebrew, which supplement the rest sung in Urdu and Hindi.

“When I wanted to express myself in the most authentic way it was in Hebrew, which is my language,” Ben-Tzur said.

Despite being an Israeli who plays traditionally Muslim music in a massive country with very few Jews, Ben-Tzur says he has always felt accepted in India, in part because he “has no agenda.” He now primarily lives in Tel Aviv, but spends large amounts of time writing and performing in India. (In a country with a population of some 1.25 billion, India has approximately  180 million Muslims and approximately 5,000 Jews.)

“My connection with India and Indian music is a gift for me, a lifetime gift,” he said.

With the release of the album and the film, Ben-Tzur, who has rarely performed his music outside of India, has gained a tremendous amount of new exposure. The album was reviewed in mainstream media outlets, and Ben-Tzur and Greenwood were interviewed together by Rolling Stone.

Shye Ben-Tzur had been composing Indian devotional music for over a decade before he was a subject in the Paul Thomas Anderson documentary "Junun." (Shin Katan)
Shye Ben-Tzur had been composing Indian devotional music for over a decade before he was a subject in the Paul Thomas Anderson documentary “Junun.” (Shin Katan)

Ben-Tzur, 40, bearded and with flowing long brown hair, embodies the mixing of cultures and religions that his album represents: He grew up in Israel but spent most of his adult life living in India. He learned from Indian Muslim musical teachers but still writes lyrics in Hebrew. He is married to an Indian Muslim woman — the daughter of late Sufi scholar Zahurul Hassan Sharib — and his family, including an 11-year-old daughter, celebrates both Jewish and Muslim holidays.

Ben-Tzur realizes his journey from Israel, where he once played in Western-style rock bands, to the world of spiritual Muslim Indian music is a highly unusual tale.

However, he emphasizes that his passion for Indian music, which has inspired him since he first heard it played at a concert in Israel when he was 19, led him into the spiritual and religious realm, not the other way around.

Ben-Tzur told JTA he was touched by the openness and accepting attitude of the Indian Muslim community. He said it was a welcome relief from the religious and political tensions he grew up around in Israel.

One song on “Junun” is called “Allah Elohim” — named after the Muslim and Jewish words for “God.” One of its lines in Hebrew translates this way: “To Jews, I am a Jew, to Muslims, a Muslim/Whatever language I speak, it means the same thing.”

It’s a complex spirituality, but when asked to explain it, Ben-Tzur demurred.

“I’d rather express it [through music] than explain it,” he said.