Inside 'Junun': Jonny Greenwood, Shye Ben-Tzur Talk Indian-Music Odyssey

Radiohead guitarist, Israeli composer on birdsong cameos, album's "sense of catharsis," and jazz and funk undercurrents

Credit: Shin Katan

Ever since Rolling Stone Brian Jones stumbled through Morocco in a hash haze, only to come upon the Master Musicians of Jajouka in a small village in 1968, there's been an interconnectedness between Western rock stars and Eastern mysticism. From the Beatles and the Beach Boys holed up in Rishikesh with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to the Beastie Boys making a "Bodhisattva Vow" and raising consciousness about Tibet, there's been a quest for enlightenment amid the flash of rock stardom, a search for ancient roots deep inside of modern music.

But when Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood recently traveled to Jodhpur to make an album in a 15th-century fort, that passage to India came with a twist. He was collaborating with the Israeli-born, India-based composer Shye Ben-Tzur, and Ben-Tzur had assembled not a classical Indian music ensemble, but one that evoked the myriad faiths, musics, languages and sounds that India has to offer. Sung in Hindi, Hebrew and Urdu, Junun (which signifies "the madness of love") is credited to Ben-Tzur, Greenwood and the 19-member strong Rajasthan Express, recorded by longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and filmed in situ by P.T. Anderson. And rather than scanning as a rock star making a "world music" album, the end result is a startling hybrid of devotional Sufi poetry, thundering Nagara drums, and Greenwood's ondes Martenot and sputtering drum machines, all topped by snaking brass and pigeon coos. We reached out to Ben-Tzur and Greenwood to learn how the two musicians connected across disciplines, the perils of recording an album in India, and why Greenwood felt during the sessions like he was in a Seventies funk band. 

How did you become aware of one another's music? On the outside, it would appear there's not much overlap between Radiohead and traditional Sufi Qawwali music, so who heard whom first?
Jonny Greenwood:
I heard a band playing one of his songs in the Negev desert: I really complimented the band on having written the song, only to find out that it was written by someone else ...

Shye Ben-Tzur: After a concert I played in Calcutta, I received a call from a friend who knew Jonny. He told me that Jonny had heard my music, liked it, and wanted to know if I was interested in meeting. I obviously know Radiohead, and was very curious. When we met, it was without any agenda of doing something together. We had some great talks, and an inspiring exchange of ideas regarding different aspects of music.

A year ago I had a concert in London with my group. Jonny joined us as a guest musician. He really merged into the music in the most fabulous way. The songs in Junun correspond with Indian ragas. The aesthetics of most composition are based on melodic movements within the scales. Jonny's concept of using chords delicately, not imposing harmonic progression and using his guitar more as part of the rhythm was brilliant. Keeping this in mind, every line he brought into the songs was so full of character and always with a twist. After the London concert I felt that working with Jonny would be an opportunity to experiment with this music and allow it to take higher creative flight. Eventually the reality of playing all together in a Jodhpur fort for three weeks was one of the most profound experiences. Making an album was a great excuse to do that.

Jonny, I read that you've traveled to India previously. What had led you there and what regions did you visit?
Greenwood:
 I spent four months there when Radiohead took a year off. It was a pretty musical experience: I saw some great music festivals in Kerela and Rajasthan. And it's very addictive music when you see it being played.

How did this particular ensemble come together on Junun? The group cuts across language and musical disciplines. Was that the intention when you began?
Ben-Tzur:
 I came to India after listening to an Indian music concert in Jerusalem that blew my mind. I was very passionate about it and ended up spending 15 years living, studying and creating music in India. I had written songs since I was a young boy. Since I then spent most of my adult life immersed in an environment with Indian traditional music, it was a natural evolution to begin to express myself in a way that corresponded with my surroundings.

The musicians on the album belong to few communities, spread throughout the state of Rajasthan. We have Zakir and Zaki Ali, the Qawwal singers, who belong to the Sufi tradition, which took form in Ajmer. The Qawwals sing mostly at Sufi gatherings (Sama) at Sufi holy tombs. These gatherings are not concerts, but rather sacred rituals that proceed for an entire night. While in Ajmer, I came to know other Rajasthani folk traditions. One of these is the Manganyar community. The Manganiyar are known as desert musicians par excellence. They are Muslim by religion, but they used to sing in the courts of the Hindu Maharajas. Qawwals are sermonic musicians but Manganyars are considered masters of entertainment. Mixing the Qawwal vocals with the Manganiyar style of playing percussion and strings was thrilling.  

When Jonny and I discussed the rhythmical aspect of the album, he was keen that we keep the focus on Indian Rajasthani rhythm players and not be tempted to bring in other foreign elements. The idea was that since the music itself embodied non-traditional elements, with Jonny's drum machine and guitars it could already create an interesting mix.

Greenwood: The most curious part for me was the brass band. When the British left India, they left behind the tradition of playing brass instruments (as army bands) and it mutated into this strange form of jazz. The trumpet soloist, Amir, plays like Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong, but hadn't heard of either — it's bizarre. Jazz seems to have evolved separately in Rajasthan. Perhaps it was inevitable, given the presence of the instruments and the tradition of improvising in certain scales, but still. I kept playing him Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, telling him, "You sound like this!"

What was the recording process in Jodhpur like in comparison to being in the studio with Radiohead?
Greenwood:
 It wasn't a conventional recording space: We built a studio in one of the rooms of the palace. Nigel Godrich rigged up an echo chamber in the basement, which meant we didn't have to rely on digital effects at all. It became the key sound of the record (along with all the birds that lived in there, hence all the inadvertent birdsong on the songs). We do that kind of thing quite a lot with Radiohead — we've certainly turned abandoned houses into temporary studios a few times — but of course there's an extra layer of chaos when you try that in India. Still, it was fun gently bullying Shye into arranging songs in unlikely ways.

How did P.T. Anderson become involved in making a documentary film about the recordings?
Greenwood:
 I told him I was going to make a record in India and some friends were coming to film it. Then I think he suggested he come too. I was hoping he would offer — of course — but was wary of wasting his time on a huge disaster. There's lots of unknowables when you try and organize anything in India — which has a certain charm to it, but less charm when there's only a few weeks to finish everything and the power keeps cutting off.

Paul captured the whole feel of being there ridiculously well — i.e., music all day, every day. We'd only escape occasionally to explore the chaos of Jodphur, then return to play and record some more. Looking back now, I think we're pretty lucky to have such a document of our time there. Apart from anything else, it explains so much about the record.

Ben-Tzur: I was very surprised by the film and am completely taken with it. It's a film that has almost no dialogue, no drama. It is not focused on a single character and yet it's totally magnetic. When I first saw it, I felt it put the viewer physically inside the room where the musicians are recording. Three weeks ago, I attended a screening of Junun in Mumbai. I was amazed to see that the audience was clapping after every scene. At that point, I realized that Paul made a film on music that actually makes one feel as if she is at a concert.  

What is the feeling like playing Qawwali, the sensation of performing such devotional music?
Ben-Tzur:
 Music touches everyone in different ways. For me, music is at is best when it's not only an expression of sentiments or emotions but when it can carry the listener into some sort of inner ecstasy. Qawwali music does that. Qawwali compositions are usually very condensed into few musical sentences: the powerful rhythms, the elements of repetition and the words that are basically forms of poetic prayers. All of it boils into a feeling of trance. When sitting in the room, singing and playing together, there is sometimes a sense of a catharsis. Many times I would find myself in tears, not because of any sadness, but maybe a certain kind of awe, a feeling of intoxication.

"Many times I would find myself in tears, not because of any sadness, but maybe a certain kind of awe, a feeling of intoxication." —Shye Ben-Tzur

Is there a different approach physically in playing one note or chord that you don't encounter playing rock music with its changes?
Greenwood:
 There were similarities: In my head, it was a little like being the bass player–guitarist in a good Seventies funk band, like an Indian version of the JB's. That stuff doesn't change chords much either and in fact has a similar ecstatic mood.

Jonny, was there a profundity for you in recording this album? How do you feel that this experience will inform the next Radiohead recording?
Greenwood:
 It was very joyous. The songs are religious, but then, I don't speak any of the three languages Shye writes in. From this experience, I hope I've learnt more about the celebratory side of making music.