Kailash Kher, meet your twin from Israel, Shye Ben-Tzur. The two artists are kindred souls in the transcendental personification they bring to their music—devotional, Sufi, Qawwali, classically infused ballads. And they’re both based in India, have the same look on their faces, even if you discount the long hair and beard both sport, and sing with one voice, in all senses of the word.
Ben-Tzur’s singing compels the same single-minded listening as his Indian counterpart. His latest album, Shoshan (meaning the flower rose in Hebrew) is an inspired experiment in cross-cultural music—he uses the Qawwali style as a backdrop for Hebrew poetry, blends Rajasthani folk music with jazz sounds, rock-romanticizes the Divine with the Sufi tones of longing; a classical edifice keeping it all together. Like with Kher, the foremost appeal is that the music comes from the heart and seeks to make an emotional connection. Fitting, since Ben-Tzur did follow his heart to make India his home.
A published poet and former member of rock-band Sword of Damocles, Ben-Tzur was in Israel when he was entranced by the performances of Hariprasad Chaurasia and Zakir Hussain. He headed for an exploratory trip to India, on 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 long. I fell in love with the culture … that was ten years ago.”
After studying classical music for a while, his imagination was sparked when he heard Qawwali. In his 2003 debut album Heeyam (supreme love), Ben-Tzur worked with traditional qawwals, who learned his compositions and poetry, and sang them in Hebrew. In 2004, he performed at Jahan-e-Khusrau, the prestigious international Sufi music festival held in New Delhi.
Traveling in a rickshaw or taxi in the streets of Indian cities, lyrics and songs sorted themselves into arrangements that embraced India’s sound and color, the Western energy of Ben-Tzur’s youth, and the intensity of his native tongue, Hebrew. “There’s a cultural dialogue between the place I come from and the tradition I live in,” Ben-Tzur explains. Track 7, “Sovev” (whirling) is in Hebrew and has an ethereal sound, in part because one doesn’t understand the language, and in part because Ben-Tzur’s singing evokes it. A Rajasthani-sounding lament punctuates the philosophical melody that talks of the eventual merging all things into one.
Shoshan is proof of the surprising but welcome waylaying by Indian music that Ben-Tzur must have experienced. Almost every track has a beginnning, what he has called an “Intro” track, that coerces the full-blown discovery in the following song. The intro to “Dil Ke Bahar” (springtime for the heart) has rock beats that lead the way into an investigative alaap (note-vocalization), with a finale-crescendo of “Tumhe khuda ne hamare liye bana hai” (You were divined for me).
Shoshan also features several artists of differing styles, including Qawwali singer Zakir Ali Qawwal and the popular Shubha Mudgal. A dominant sound for Shoshan’s music came from Spanish guitarist Fernando Perez, whose flamenco and African-inflected guitar work introduces a sense of cheeriness to the heavy guttural sounds of Hebrew, for example in Track 5, “To Die In Love”; and prepares the superlative lyrics of “Dar-E-Yar” by Hazrat Nawab Hasan Gudri Shah Baba for international resonance.
The emotional and musical intelligence of Ben-Tzur lies in the fact that he has an instinct for coaxing a cohesive sound out of every vocalist including himself, and giving a home for every distinct instrument, (even the folksy matka and the semi-classical sarangi) in his compositions. As he claims in “Sovev,” “All that is apart shall return to be one.”
Shoshan is a must-buy that promises to be all that you want music to be.