Words by Nigel Williamson
Never has qawwali been so radio(head)-friendly
‘I’m always a little wary of rock bands dabbling in world music,’ admitted Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood when talking about Junun. He recorded the album earlier this year with the Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur and a troupe of Sufi qawwali musicians in the spectacular setting of the 600-year-old Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. But he went on to make an exception for the work of Damon Albarn, whose freewheeling Africa Express platform seems to have acted as a template for this project.
The compositions are credited to Shye Ben Tzur, who lives in India, marinating himself in authentic qawwali and other forms of Indian devotional music. The Radiohead man adds guitar, bass and washes of electronics but they’re never obtrusive. Like Albarn, the pair are essentially facilitators: the core of the sound is driven by the harmonium of Zaki Ali, his five-piece qawwali chorus and Indian percussion. It’s augmented in places by a six-piece brass section featuring trumpet, trombone and tuba, while guest vocalists Afshana Khan and Razia Sultan turn a couple of tracks into affecting Indian folk-pop songs. There are haunting splashes of the bowed sarangi and kamayacha (lutes) on the raga-rock of ‘Hu’. Bold, diverse and ambitious, the different elements are cleverly blended by the technical skills of Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to give the project an impressive coherence.