Sufi from the Land of Hebrew
Bomb shelters are perhaps not the best spaces for making music. In Tel Aviv during the summer this year, Ajmer-based Israeli singer and musician Shye Ben Tzur was “home” to witness “missiles for the first time in life”. He was battling with the idea and presence of a war. His pen would flow and stop. Boxed into bomb shelters with some of his Palestinian friends who had families in Gaza, Tzur performed for families in Tel Aviv. The thud of the missiles provided the rhythm. Tzur was recently in Delhi to perform at a commemorative concert for slain American journalist Daniel Pearl, organised in collaboration with the Embassy of Israel, Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Delhi International Arts Festival. He is working on his next album that will feature songs of Meera Bai. Renowned vocalist Shubha Mudgal performed a Mira Bai song in his first album Shoshan (rose).
Tzur’s three-year stay in Israel was his longest since he first came to India in the late 1990s to find a musical refuge. “At the time of the war, I was playing music and writing poetry. Most of the musicians were out of concerts. We would play for people sitting in bomb shelters. We kept in close contact with some Palestinian friends. You tend to feel frustrated on one hand. On the other hand, you are working to find peace.” Hebrew, his mother tongue, is the connecting umbilical chord in this emotional transition from hometown Tel Aviv to Ajmer, and from one culture to another. “European music is still very dominant in Israeli music. Learning music m eans you learn the European way, going through the notation system—unlike in India, where music comes from the gharanas and you learn from people who know music like they know a language,” he adds.
Tzur sings and writes in Hebrew, Hindi and Urdu. He uses ragas in singing and the playing of flute to collaborate with the Manganiyar singers and the qawwals. The music grows from his style and merges into the folk Indian during the melodic progression. The Hebrew songs see him curling into a comfortable zone where he stretches his musical limitations conquering the language barrier most effectively. He has taught his Rajasthani co-artistes many songs in the “sacred language of scriptures”. Hebrew helped Tzur glue to his cultural sensibilities with the music of the qawwals who sing in Brij, Urdu, Pharsi, Hindi and Hebrew. The languages bled into each other to find two (languages)—of music and tolerance. He likes singing the poetry of Hazrat Nawab Mohammad Khadim Hasan Shah Sahib of Ajmer. “It takes us months and months to complete a song. In Ajmer, we live together. We tour together.” Music led to spirituality. And spirituality to “life”. “I have life in India. I have got family here. Coming to a different culture is a challenge. I was not born here, so I will always be a foreigner. In a way, I am a foreigner in Israel. I am at home at both. These sort of contradictions definitely inspire me,” he says. The sounds of qawwali and Rajasthani folk music were the first to hit his ears. “I wouldn’t understand the language, or the meaning of the songs. Initially, I would keep guessing what the songs were about... whether they were about love, or life...”. The musician discovered the core when he was merely scratching the many layers of the Indian musical tradition on the surface. Attention to details in qawwalis and Rajasthani folk songs revealed the influence of Khayal gayaki in north Indian folk. Learning Khayal led Tzur to the grand and complex form Dhrupad. He travelled to Bhopal to learn Dhrupad from Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar. “I feel it is one of the highest forms of music I have been exposed to. There’s a lot of mathematics to it. It’s complex. But eventually, the most simple things affect you deeper. I feel in love with qawwali. There is a lot of groove. There are Dhrupad and Khayal to find the path. Qawwali will follow me until my last birth,” he adds.
His co-artistes are loved immensely in Israel. “When co-musician Munshi Khan died in a car accident in Jodhpur sometime back, people in Israel cried. They collected money for Munshi’s family.” It happens when languages bleed into each other.