Where Indian Musical Comedy Meets Hebrew Spirituality

Shye Ben-Tzur talks about living and studying music in India for 15 years, then trying to put it into his new single and video, 'Shahar’.

Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev

When Shye Ben-Tzur went to India 15 years ago, he found a master of Indian classical music, settled into his house and started very intensive daily instruction. “It was like a yeshiva for music,” says Ben-Tzur. The day went like this: He’d wake up at 4 A.M. and hum a single low tone for the next two hours. As the sun started to rise, he’d slowly and gradually sing a higher tone until he had the whole scale done. At 7 A.M., he’d shower and eat something light, and an hour later the teacher − “The most fabulous musician I’ll ever meet in my life,” he says − would show up for a lesson that lasted until noon. The teacher would sing a phrase and the students would have to repeat it or improvise on it and get the master’s feedback. They would cook and eat lunch together, and another four-hour class would start at 2 P.M. The teacher would leave the students at 6 P.M. to practice on their own until 9 P.M. The evening meal would be cooked and eaten together, students would go to sleep, and the cycle would start all over again at 4 the next morning.

Except for one thing. During supper, before the students went to sleep, they’d do something totally at odds with the traditional, ascetic ethos that informed their daily routine: The teacher would turn the TV on, and for half an hour everyone would watch Indian soap operas or trashy pop shows or Kung Fu movies. “They took these programs really seriously,” says Ben-Tzur, “and the truth is that at the beginning I didn’t get it. I though it was ridiculous. What’s the connection between this garbage and the profoundly serious work we do all day long? But then I realized that there didn’t have to be a contradiction. Just because you allowed some humor and frivolity in, it didn’t mean there wasn’t belief. The two can coexist. Both are part of the Indian routine.”

Religion and slapstick

This insight − that there doesn’t have to be a conflict between spiritual, devotional music and trashy pop − is particularly well reflected by “Shahar,” the new single released by Ben-Tzur and the Rajasthan Express, and the music video of the song. They are a charming and highly enjoyable blend of contrasts: East and West, tradition and parody, belief and humor, religion and slapstick.

In essence, “Shahar” is a love song addressed to God and has a profoundly traditional foundation, both textually and musically. The text says: “I am a prisoner of vanity. / My freedom lies in the shadow of His grace. / On His doorstep I shall sing, beseeching His light.” The melody is completely faithful to the Indian raga called Jog, and the melody’s structure obeys traditional Hindustani rules: The first part is constructed of four musical statements while the second part develops the melody of the first, creating a sense of growth, and then flows back to the original tune.

So the skeleton of the song is traditional and serious, but its outer form is modern, colorful and amusing. Alongside the melody faithful to raga, the song’s introduction consists of an acoustic guitar playing three chords, in contradiction to Indian music, which has no harmonic chords. Later on in the song, an electric guitar, sounding like African music − especially that from Mali − joins in.

The song’s music video is reminiscent of the TV programs Ben-Tzur would watch at his master’s house, filled with ridiculous characters, wrathful Indian gods, a blurring of the masculine and the feminine, with everything bathed in blaring Technicolor. To a certain extent, the clip resembles the one for “Shoshan,” Ben-Tzur’s most popular song, though that clip was a nod towards the legendary clip for “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys, one of Ben-Tzur’s favorite bands.

When Ben-Tzur is asked about his choice of putting a colorful, rustling, comic cover on top of the spiritual devotional music, he says: “I write about serious things, such as my yearning for God and my love for Him, but when I think about how to transmit it, I realize that if the music and the sound are just as serious and delicate as the text, the music is liable to sound too New Agey, even pathetic. It happens a lot when you get involved with Indian culture. There’s a tendency to romanticize and idealize. A different way is to try to express the spiritual elevation inherent in the text by humorous means. That’s what I tried to do in the production and clip of ‘Shahar.’ I think there’s joy there, and the song and clip make the listener smile. If I caused people to smile, I’ve gotten something important across.”

Turning point in ’90s

Ben-Tzur has lived in India for the past 15 years, and though he spent a considerable amount of time in Israel this past year ‏(he and his family are renting a house in Hararit in the Galilee‏), his center of activity remains in India and he doesn’t tour much in Israel. But in the next few days he will give several shows together with the Rajasthan Express, his steady band, featuring four Indian musicians: Zaki Ali and Zakir Ali, two brothers who sing and play the harmonium, and Choga Khan and Nihal Khan, who play percussion instruments such as the khartal and dholak. The first show will take place tonight at the East-West House in Jaffa. The coming shows will take place on Thursday at the Ashram in the Desert, in the Arava; Friday at Habe’er, the pub at Kibbutz Tze’elim; Saturday at Berele Club in Lehavot Haviva; next Tuesday at the Khan Theater in Jerusalem; next Friday at Hemdat Yamim; and Saturday night ‏(May 11‏) at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv.

Ben-Tzur first wanted to get involved with Indian music in the mid-1990s, after experiencing a sense of transcendence during a show by flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and tabla player Zakir Hussain at the Israel Festival. Until then, he was almost completely unfamiliar with the genre. He started his own musical career with the Sword of Damocles, a metal band. “I had a somewhat complicated childhood, and metal managed to contain my complexity and express it,” he says. “But at a certain age I felt I was starting to solve all sorts of issues, and metal wasn’t suitable to my new sense of self. When you externalize your pain and scream you sometimes feel better for it, but it’s also true that the scream can actually intensify the pain.”

Chaurasia and Hussain’s show threw Ben-Tzur for a loop. “It lasted four hours,” he recalls. “During the first hour, Hariprasad played the flute alone. I remember tears streaming down my face, not because I was sad or happy; I was just astounded by the perfection of this music. The performance showed me that I was living in a very narrow world, a very specific slice of it. Life seemed too long to stay in that niche forever. I wanted to go to India to study.”

Staying with his master teacher was a formative experience in which he started to internalize Indian music. But Ben-Tzur decided to leave after a year − not just his teacher, but India too. “You’re never good, you’re never really important,” he says of the emotions he was experiencing at the time. “It’s a tradition in which the teacher encourages you and says, ‘You’re doing well, keep at it.’ I also had the sense that I would never sound like the Indian students. When I was feeling down, I looked for positive feedback in books, and I stumbled across a line by Rumi that said, ‘Someone who doesn’t speak his language becomes mute even if he learns a hundred songs.’ I felt the line was talking about me. I’d learned a hundred songs from my master, but they weren’t in my language. And that generated my desire to start writing lyrics in Hebrew and to connect these lyrics with Indian music.”

After a year in New York, during which he didn’t know whether to stay in the world of music or go off in a different direction altogether, Ben-Tzur decided to go back to India. This time, he didn’t impose a total regimen of study on himself. He settled in Mumbai, started playing the flute, and took part in a workshop led by Chaurasia. But the music that appealed to him more strongly than any other wasn’t the classical Indian music he’d heard at that unforgettable show in Jerusalem, but rather another style in the vast universe known collectively as Indian music. This style, Qawwali, is a form of Sufi devotional music. “It’s a lot like trance music,” says Ben-Tzur. “When people hear ‘Indian music’ they tend to think of something very calming and meditative, but Qawwali has a rhythm and a groove. It’s the music of transcendence and you feel it not only in your heart but also in your body.”

Sufism and Judaism

Ben-Tzur traveled to the city of Ajmer in Rajasthan, one of the centers of Sufism, and got to know the musical community there. The fact that Sufis are strict Muslims and he was a Jew from Israel didn’t ever bother anybody, he says. “On the contrary, their respect for Judaism made me look at things in a way that I, as someone who grew up in a secular household, had never seen before. I drew a tremendous amount of inspiration from the encounter with the people in Ajmer and their music.”

Ben-Tzur put together his band in Rajasthan, and in 2003 they put out their first album, “Heeyam,” followed seven years later by “Shoshan.” “When I was working on ‘Heeyam,’ I imagined a Hebrew-speaking community in Ajmer and I wanted it to sound like the music of that imaginary community: music that would retain the traditional Indian sound but be sung in Hebrew. The combination excited me and also aroused my curiosity. When I started working on ‘Shoshan,’ I didn’t want to do the same type of album. I kept the structures of Indian music at the core, but I tried to wrap the Indian core with harmonies and sounds from the music I grew up on.”

One of the beautiful things about the fusion you’ve created is the colorful tumult coming out of it, sometimes even bordering on chaos.

“I’m happy that comes through. India is very chaotic. The picture postcard image of meditation and crystals and the Ganges is wonderful for the Indian tourism ministry, and it could be exactly what you’d see were you to sign up for a bed-and-breakfast tour of the country. But the real India is a radically intense place, and Indian music − except for classical Indian music − is very intense too. Mass culture is part of life, and it doesn’t have to be hidden. My creativity draws on these elements and sometimes I try to smooth it out a little at production time so that it’s not totally impossible to listen to it. I hope I’m striking the right balance.”

Ben-Tzur: "The real India is a radically intense place."Credit: David Bachar
From video of "Shahar": Tradition and parody.

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