Sunday, June 7, 2009

Creating Musical Bridge between Divergent Faiths

Creating Musical Bridge between Divergent Faiths
Syed Ali Mujtaba

Can Islam and Judaism live in peace? Skeptics may have a two word answer but incorrigible optimists may like to argue; Yes they can! This optimism comes after listening to Shye Ben Tzur, the acclaimed Israeli composer, producer and performer, who is trying to synthesize his personal experiences of Judaism with Islamic mysticism and has succeeded in creating a unique cross cultural musical platform unheard in modern times.

Dressed in black sherwani, Shye Ben-Tzur looked immaculate at the EarthSync festival held at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall, Lady Andal School, in Chennai, on May 30, 2009. He performed songs from his upcoming album “Soshan” (rose) on a exotically decorated stage and infornt of a packed audience.

Dabbling with tunes set to Hebrew and Urdu lyrics, he held the centre stage with his group consisting of Rajasthani musicians, and Israeli artists, and was able to create a unique musical experience of very unusual kind.

The evening performance was spectacular. Shye started his performance with flute recital; it was followed by title song of his new album “Shosan”. Frida Begum the earthy Punjabi singer from Rajasthan and the Quwals from Ajmer regaled the audience.

A few songs later, listeners were hooked to the drum beats modeled on traditional north Indian wedding music where groom rides a horse in a musical procession and makes entry into the bride’s house. The Rajasthani musicians with thick moustaches and colorful turbans created an electrifying atmosphere. The crowd went on rupture hearing a beautiful melody on the Clarinet and were on their feet clapping and whistling to the sound of music.

Barring a few composition that were in Hindustani, most of the songs were in Hebrew. Shye spoke in English the meaning of those songs and it was all about the conversation between the devotee and the divine. One was devotee’s total surrender to the divine’s will; other was about the profound love for the divine.

By the end, when Shye, introduced his troop members to the audience, they all had assembled near the stage, dancing on the tunes of each musician that played a solo piece. The entire troop gave their heart to the audience when they showered rose petals on the crowd who danced with them in joy.

Watching Shye and his musicians I was struck by the group's heterogeneity. There was Spaniard Fernando Perez on the guitar, Israel Eyel Mazig on the bass, his countryman Ran Lev Ari on the drums. They were accompanied by Rajasthani folk musicians with their rare instruments. A clear example of how music and art form can cross political and religious boundaries, and create a cross cultural synthesis based on the unity of mankind.

Just before his concert, I caught Shye for a friendly chat outside the auditorium. I asked him, how he began his musical journey? “Well I started as a rock musician in Israel and my first band was “Sword of Damocles.” I had been composing music quite early in life but deep inside remained hungry for right kind of inspiration.

Then, I attended a concert by Hari Prasad Chaurasia on flute and Zakir Hussain on Tabla. This left a deep musical experience on me. I came to India to discover an ocean of traditional musical form being practiced all over the country.

However, I was looking for sacred and meaningful music and that brought me to the Ajmer dargah where I fell in love with qawwali music. I also discovered here the beauty of Islam ad was amazed to see so much beauty and healing touch also existed in Islam.

I asked him if he is enjoying the status of Hebrew Qawwal and being hailed as a Hebrew Sufi. Shye shot back; I am neither a Qawwal nor a Sufi. I draw lot of inspiration from Qawwali music but that does not qualify me to be a Qawwal. There are many accomplished practitioner in this form of music. As far as being called as Hebrew Sufi, this again would be a misnomer. subject. You can at best call me a Hebrew music composer.

To my question why does he compose music in Hebrew, he said, though he can speak Hindustani, he is more comfortable in his mother tongue. I am translating Urdu poetry into Hebrew and composing music for it.My ancient language lends itself so beautifully to Sufi songs, the Ajmer qawwals like to sing my Hebrew lyrics, he said.

To my question how is his music being received in India and Israel, he said, I have performed several times in Israel including at the World Music Festival in May 2004 where Rajistani folk artists, group of qawwals from Ajmer, Israeli artists all come together to bind Judaism and Islam in a joyful celebration. Emotionally music is all about unity and it transcends all barriers, he said.

In India, I have performed at Jahan-e-Khusrau, the prestigious international Sufi music festival in New Delhi, and at everal other cities of the country. The response is tremendous, I m glad my music is finding its own place in India.

To the question whether he likes India, he said though Israel is my country of birth he finds emotionally attached to India. India has such a strong Sufi tradition; it has not just touched me but grabbed me.

Shye Ben-Tzur is living in India for over a decade now. He has dedicated himself to work on cross cultural platform to bridge the divergent faiths of Judaism and Islam. He sings in Hebrew, but his words are of Islamic Sufi tradition. He has set to tune many insightful Urdu poems written by famous Sufi saints of India.

The singer's first effort to promote his brand of music was "Heeyam" (supreme love). In this album he has succeeded to bring his own ancient culture alive with Islamic Sufi tradition of India. Involving musicians from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, the album shares the vision of unity of mankind through music.

Shye Ben Tzur has unwittingly become symbols of cultural harmony. The EarthSync, a Chennai based music label by giving support to such kind of music has once again reinstated its commitment to nurturing world music of unique kind. In past, EarthSync’s work such as Laya Project and Laya Project Live! ‘The Ojos de Brujo albums’, ‘Nagore Sessions’ and ‘Voice Over The Bridge’ has been well received world over.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at

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