Bouncing along in a brightly painted cab or breathing the sweet sanctity of a Sufi shrine, melodies come unbidden to musician and composer Shye Ben-Tzur. And they burst into full blossom on Shoshan, a funky filigree of unexpected trans-cultural devotional songs encompassing the soaring sounds of Rajastan, the literary cadences of Hebrew, and the pulse of a rock bass line.
The seemingly quirky juxtapositions—devotional qawwali music with Hebrew poetry, Indian classical vocals with rocking bass and Spanish guitar—flow from Ben-Tzur’s decade-long love affair with India and his striking life experience. A published poet in his native Israel, he grew up studying music and playing in rock bands, until one fateful evening.
Ben-Tzur went to a concert given by two Indian classical masters, bansuri (flute) player Hariprasad Chaurasia and tabla player Zakir Hussain. He was so entranced by what he heard that he was soon packing his bags and heading to India, for what he thought would be a fairly short trip.
“When I first started out, I just focused on coming to India and learning the music,” Ben-Tzur recalls with a smile. “I didn’t plan to stay that long. I fell in love with the culture. That was ten years ago, and now my creative life is here.”
This exploratory stint turned into years spent learning from Indian musicians, performing professionally, and raising a family. Ben-Tzur found himself playing with Indian classical musicians, Rajastani gypsies, and the Sufi devotional singers whose soaring vocals resound throughout Shoshan.
Yet as Ben-Tzur dug deep into the infinitely rich soil of Indian music, he found new songs springing to mind. He heard melodies while riding through the streets of Bombay or while looking for musicians in Jaipur. “When I’m in a rickshaw or taxi, suddenly a melody arises. At first, I often work with these melodies in an Indian way,” Ben-Tzur notes. “I’ve been living and playing music here for so long; that’s the first way I hear them.”
The serendipitous melodies suggested texts, often in Hebrew, in their feel and sound. “Even when I write, I’m a musician, so the music evokes emotions and these emotions become lyrics very naturally,” reflects Ben-Tzur.
As they evolve, the songs begged for arrangements that embraced India’s sound and color, and the Western energy of Ben-Tzur’s youth. “There’s a cultural dialogue between the place I come from and the tradition I live in,” Ben-Tzur explains.
This dialogue plays itself out in the vibrant variety of musical expertise Ben-Tzur drew on when recording Shoshan. Rajastani collaborators such as qawwali singer Zakir Ali Qawwal lend their distinct sonic palette with rousing potency whether springing into a traditional arc of improvisation, or singing in Hebrew. Young but respected Indian classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal graces “Daras Bin,” sending her powerful voice over an artfully arranged string section composed by Ben-Tzur.
Another guiding force for Ben-Tzur came from Spanish guitarist Fernando Perez, whose flamenco and African-inflected guitar work lifts introspective moments like “Sovev” to delicate heights. Bassist Yossi Fine, who has backed stars from David Bowie to Lou Reed, laid down heavy grooves to match the ecstatic rise and fall of melodic lines on upbeat tracks like “Shoshan.”
Behind this diversity of sounds and colors, however, lies a unifying spirit. This ethos echoes in the words of Sufi saint Hazrat Nawab Khadim Hasan Gudri Shah Baba III, whose poems inspired “Dil Ke Behar” and “Dar-E-Yar.” Regardless of whether Ben-Tzur sings his own Hebrew lyrics or those of an Indian holy man, however, the motivating force is the same: the longing for oneness with the divine, a mystical ache transcending religion and culture and transforming experience into song.
“The songs on Shoshan are love songs to God, to music itself, as I experience it and try to express it,” muses Ben-Tzur. “Christian, Jewish, Muslim, it’s all one approach and outlook in the search for unity. It’s not always finding it, but it’s the longing for it.”