Pop and rock music have a history of artists immersing themselves in Eastern music. The Beatles are the obvious example, but everyone from Fleet Foxes to Britney Spears have taken cues from Indian music traditions in particular. Typically, this means taking some aspect of the aesthetic and culture and re-contextualizing it into a pop format for western listeners, like utilizing a sitar for “Norwegian Wood”.
Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood acknowledged this trend soon after he announced the release of Junun, telling the Evening Standard that he’s “always a little wary of rock bands half-heartedly dabbling in world music.” However, Junun is not Greenwood bringing in indian musicians to flesh out his own compositions. Given both his and producer Nigel Godrich’s involvement, Junun may give off the impression that this is going to be a Radiohead spin on Indian music (the closest we get to this is the guitar-driven “Allah Elohim”). In fact, it’d be disingenuous to really call this a Greenwood project at all. In fact, he’s just one of more than 16 players on the record and is hardly the center of any of the tracks.
In the accompanying documentary of the same name — directed by the brilliant Paul Thomas Anderson — it becomes even more evident how collaborative this album is. Recorded at Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan, India, the musicians would all sit in a circle and perform live together (with the exception of some vocal overdubs). As the camera pans between each musician, it becomes strikingly evident how crucial each role is. Every piece of percussion carries just as much weight as the swoopy-haired guy on guitar who sells out Madison Square Garden.
Anderson’s documentary also does well to highlight the different personalities that make up the cast of collaborators, collectively known as The Rajastahn Express. They are not simply a backing band hired to play the parts, but dynamic musicians each helping steer the direction of the project. If there’s a main player to credit at all, it’d be composer Shye Ben Tzur — an Israeli musician who moved to Indian in the ‘90s to study the country’s music.
In terms of “cultural appropriation,” this is where things get really interesting. Junun, while sounding largely “traditional” to western ears, is an intricately designed mash of cultures. Aside from Tzur and Greenwood’s own backgrounds, each player contributes their own unique perspective. Some songs are Hebrew translations of Sufi poetry, while others are sung in Hindi and Urdu. What’s especially fascinating about this is how it breaks down the barriers of interpretation. There are only so many people in the world who could speak all three of those languages, yet the music is emotive and stirring even to those who speak none.
The graceful “Hu” moves pensively, gradually building layers of droning strings for two minutes before the guitar and percussion enter. It feels so cinematic and heavenly that when the vocalists do join in, there’s a sincere connection with the listener. The emotions translated with the harmonies and chorus are affecting on tonality and timbre alone.
Greenwood and Godrich do their best at staying out of the way and letting the local musicians share their stories. An intensive listen, though, will reveal bits of Greenwood’s personality peaking through. The bass lines on the title track and “Roked” carry a King Of Limbs quality, slowly bouncing along in the background. Greenwood’s trademark slinking guitar-work peaks through again on closer “Mode”.
Junun should be approached with a willingness to embrace new ideas. Greenwood is clearly the big audience draw here, but even fans of his solo compositions may feel a little lost. But, someone with an eager ear will find beauty in this blend of cultures and styles. It’s a celebration of musicians living, breathing, and learning from one another.
Essential Tracks: “Hu”, “Kalandar”, and “Junun”