Combine Israeli-born, India-based composer Shye Ben-Tzur, the 19-member Rajasthan Express and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood in a 15-century fort in northwest India — with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich recording the music and filmmaker P.T. Anderson recording the sights — and something interesting is bound to happen. Turns out it is one of the best albums of the year and it goes by the name of “Junun.”
You’re immediately swept into the lovely drone of the album on the title track as an electronic drum machine pulses the song to life and is quickly joined by the rattling of Indian percussion, the melding of Eastern and Western influences into one rhythm. Skittering trumpet and an anchoring bassline are absorbed into the fabric of the groove with ease and the enchanting Qawwal singers Zakir and Zaki Ali breathe the heart of India into the song. When the rolling caravan of sound breaks down into a half-step bounce, the rhythm becomes irresistible and you become transfixed by the singular sound.
Singularity is at the heart of “Junun” as it looks to distill a wide range of musical and cultural traditions into one sound. The aesthetic of the album is rooted in the influences of the Sufi devotional music called qawwali, Manganiar court music and Rajasthani brass, three styles of music that usually never come together. This amalgamation is enriched by the addition Greenwood’s prowess with electronics and guitars and lyrics that are a mix of Urdu, Hindi and Hebrew.
The beautiful chants and rhythms of the album do have the ability to drown out the surrounding world and place you in trance. “Chala Vahi Des” opens with gorgeous vocals from Afshana Khan and Razia Sultan that jumps into a transfixing drum groove, with the ladies’ voices flowering in emotion as it continues. “Eloah” is an a cappella chant that draws you through a vortex of echoing vocals. The looping majesty of “Hu” is set into motion by the drone of a sarangi, an Indian bow instrument, and over the song’s seven-minute length soaring harmonies, percussion and billowing horns meditate together in a mystic groove.
The brass band is a powerhouse on the album and often provides a rattling shot of celebration. A blaring whistle kicks off “Julus,” which rumbles through the streets like a grand parade of elephants. The brass section is given center stage on “Junun Brass” and and it produces a towering instrumental version of the title track that gives it more weight and sway.
Where the album really shines, though, is when it achieves a singular vision of music. “Kalandar” is a seamless dance of Ben Tzur’s flute and the digital programming of Greenwood that eventually spindles into a textured drum-and-vocal rhythm. Greenwood’s guitar is the gentle undercurrent of “Allah Elohim” and its melancholic vocals are intertwined with the swirling lines of brass. When these moments occur, the music does not come from any one region or tradition but is indicative of the symbiotic relationship between Ben Tzur, Greenwood and the Rajashtan Express. They play as one, they move as one, they are one. They truly have created something unique in “Junun.”
Shye Ben-Tzur, the Rajasthan Express and Jonny Greenwood
Notable Tracks: “Hu,” “Junun,” “Kalandar”See trailer below for the documentary film: