Junun – A unique musical journey set in Rajasthan
Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur joined forces with Jonny Greenwood of the legendary Radiohead and scores of traditional Rajasthani musicians including Manganiyars, qawwals and other folk musicians in the awe-inspiring Mehrangarh Fort of Jodhpur. Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, fascinated by this fusion project, decided to tag along and document their collective creative process and thus was born Junun – a unique music documentary.
Shye Ben Tzur decodes some aspects of the powerful journey for us in this conversation:
How did you come on board for Junun?
Johnny and I met a few years ago. Last year, I had a concert with the Rajasthani musicians I’d worked with, where Johnny was a guest artist. The show went off really well, and we felt like we should definitely continue to collaborate. The idea to make an album came about, and we wanted to avoid going to a studio to make that album, because we wanted to create something that is exciting, created in an inspiring environmental, and not a pharmaceutical atmosphere.
I was in India for a few concerts, and began sharing my vision to create this album with Johnny and Rajasthani musicians in a place that’s not a studio. I met with the Maharaja of Jodhpur, who had attended many concerts in the past and whom I knew briefly, and asked him if he could recommend a place like that in Rajasthan. Then he offered the Mehrangarh Fort, and was very supportive. I was amazed. I went over and took some photographs and sent them to Johnny, who loved it. Nigel Godrich joined in too, which was really great.
That’s when Paul heard that we were about to go to India and do this music album, and he said he’d love to come along. It all happened very fast, and the setting was so informal and beautiful. We all spent three weeks in the fort, recording and creating something special.
How has working out of the Mehrangarh Fort, and collaborating with so many talented musicians across the board been like?
In this album, I have worked with Rajasthani folk musicians and qawwals that I’ve known for years. I’ve lived in India for most of my adult life, studying music and working with musicians mostly in Rajasthan. I lived in Mumbai in 2000, for a year, and I love it. It’s one of my favourite cities, it’s so liberal, and I feel the people here are very down-to-earth.
So I introduced the Rajasthani musicians to Nigel and Johnny and we started discussing how to put the vision together. I’ve been composing the music for the last few years, which I then brought to Johnny who had a vision of how it should be recorded and arranged. We were playing live throughout those three weeks, getting in different ideas, and Johnny added his musical interpretations as well. It was amazing to see him coming from such a different school of music than Indian classical, and then to collaborate so naturally.
What were the differences in both of your creative processes, and did you have any roadblocks along the way?
I’m very happy to say that there were no roadblocks — it was just like walking on clouds for three weeks, honestly. I think for all of us, it was a very rare situation that we were very lucky to be a part of a group of really accomplished artists who have the chance to appreciate talent and stimulate each other. There were no agendas or ego clashes. Each one had their own role to play, and their own dynamics with each of the musicians.
Paul was very curious about what was going on, and how to go about documenting it. The Rajasthani musicians that I’ve known for so many years, they are so special in what they do. It was just like a three-week carnival, really.
What sort of preparation work went into the making of this album and documentary?
Johnny and I would sit and listen to references on YouTube or samples of music, and jam. I also came down to India to record a few sounds before the three weeks at Mehrangarh Fort. It was all very straightforward, we’d work on it and then send it over to Nigel, the producer. Our vision was to have the Indian sound aesthetics very dominant, and keep it very raw, and also bring a few creative Western elements to it as well. Johnny loves a lot of plain rhythms, so his guitar is often corresponding with the rhythm section. We tried not to have too many chord progressions, which is very typical for Western music.
There were a lot of discussions about the attitude of the recordings and what was the atmosphere we wanted to create.
How did you create a studio in the Mehrangarh Fort, and what was the ethos with which you approached the project?
We were lucky enough to get a part of the fort where people didn’t really frequent. It was the size of a small town, and it was surreal to walk around at night by yourself in the silence… that’s probably one of my favourite memories. Seeing the city of Jodhpur from the fort was something else.
When Nigel was making the studio in the Mehrangarh fort, he was focusing on how to make it cosy and how to soundproof it. He designed it in a way that was creatively inspiring, to create a space where the musicians would be comfortable and would feel good. Rather than try to program what we want and how things should be done, we tried to create a space where the process would be organic. Johnny was looking more for the freshness of the take, it was important that there was heart in them — perfection was not the goal. The purpose of music is to touch your soul, and uplift you, and that’s what we tried to bring about.
What was your experience working with Paul Thomas Anderson like?
It’s very inspiring to work with people who want to be inspired. He didn’t come with an agenda, and never instructed us to sit in a particular way, or do something in particular — he was very open-minded and let us do our thing. He never tried to dictate a moment. Paul is amazing, he is such an accomplished director and again, he’s a very curious and creative person.
The documentary has very few manipulations, and people might judge it in different ways, but it’s very personal and honest. It’ll transport you to the studio, and make you feel as though you are with the musicians, watching them making an album. It’s very powerful.
Tell us a little bit about how you worked with the Rajasthani musicians and the qawwals.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Rajasthan working with qawwals, and having lived in India for 15 years, I have been working and performing with them for many years. In the West, people talk about Indian music as one thing, not realising how rich it is, and how many different traditions of Indian music, and different types there are. I love Indian classical music, I think it is the deepest form of music, yet, I am very attached and drawn to the folk traditions — the devotional bhakt music, Sufi music, Rajasthani manganiyars and the qawwals.
I’ve worked with qawwals from Ajmer quite a bit, and that’s when I came across the Manganiyar traditions — Muslim musicians playing in Hindu Maharajah’s courts. It has a rich rhythm aspect and it’s the music of entertainment for the royals, whereas the Sufi saints have mehfils and is more devotional. We also decided we wanted to include a brass band for this collaboration, something that hasn’t been explored before. We were working with this Rajasthani wedding brass band, and they come from a different background — from baraats, from the colonial era, it’s a celebratory music. We named it the Rajasthan Express, but it’s really the coming together of various traditions in an interesting way.
Have you heard of the Manganiyar Seduction?
Oh yes, Roysten Abel is a great friend and in fact, some of the musicians we have collaborated with are a part of the outfit.
What do you think of the Indian independent music scene?
I think it’s going through a shift, and I’m very happy to see it growing and evolving. A few years ago, it was still in its primitive stages but it’s exploded in the past 5 years. Great things are happening, maybe due to the internet and social media, but people are more connected and don’t need to be dependent on the record companies. There are interesting platforms coming up, and something that I would really be excited to see is more original fusion music.
I see a lot of bands that sound like an established counterpart in the West, bands that sound like Radiohead, or Metallica — I think a time will come when they sound completely different.
What were the challenges you faced while recording Junun?
Life is always a challenge, really… but when it comes to this project, for me personally, the challenge was sometimes the language. A lot of the music I write is in Hebrew, although I’m very familiar with Indian classical and Hindi and have also written in Urdu and Hindi.
When you write poetry, the most natural thing is to write in the language that you have grown up with, so being a foreigner and dealing with Indian music with languages that you don’t know is sometimes difficult. There was a language barrier sometimes, but I feel fortunate that music is a bridge for language barriers, and I really believe in it. Music brought me to India, and when I first heard different Indian compositions, I didn’t understand a word, but still, my heart was completely captivated by it. I believe that if it works on me, it can work on anybody in a similar way.
Do you have any advice for Indian musicians doing fusion music, to make sure it’s not superficial in its execution?
I don’t like giving advice, but I think it’s very important to be true to yourself, and also to realise where you’re coming from. Even if you really like something you hear, you don’t necessarily need to become what you look up to — that’s a big trap. You can like different sounds from different centuries, or backgrounds, but if you try to imitate them you might not be doing justice to your own talent.