Like dozens of acts before them, Radiohead’s announcement of a tour date in Israel sparked an immediate outcry followed by a heated debate. Responding to musicians like Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, who petitioned for the band to cancel the performance — criticizing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and comparing the government’s policies to “apartheid,” read a letter to frontman Thom Yorke — Radiohead not only reaffirmed their plans, but in choosing opening acts Dudu Tassa and Shye Ben Tzur for the July 19 show at Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park, are emphasizing, through art, the cross-cultural understanding and dialog so desperately needed in the area.
They take different routes to get to this place — of making music predicated upon showing just how fluid the borders between Israel and the outside world can be. For Tassa, that fluidity comes from family and history, while Tzur’s comes from religion and love. But for each, the message remains clear: “music and culture can overcome all barriers,” Tassa tells Variety.
Tassa’s story is a particularly fascinating one. The famed Israeli musician adapts music originally co-written by his grandfather and great-uncle, known as the Kuwaiti Brothers, one of the most important bands in the popular music of Iraq. Tassa, who had once focused solely on Hebrew rock, now showcases the deeply rooted, potent depth of music written decades ago by Iraqi Jews, and featuring traditional Arabic instruments. “In Arabic music, it’s all about melody and in unison,” Tassa explains. “But I thought about the young Israeli people before I thought about the war. I thought about the young generation that lives in the Middle East because they know this music. So I tried to add harmonies, bass, and drums to help them connect.”
Tzur, meanwhile, was impacted by a musical tradition completely outside of his upbringing. A concert from Ustad Zakir Hussain sent the young Israeli on a passionate journey into the depths of Indian musical traditions. “He’s Muslim, and he played anyway, and it didn’t really matter to the government, but it did touch me and it changed my life,” Tzur explains. He eventually moved to India and founded the Rajasthan Express, a group that performs qawwalis, a form of traditional Sufi spiritual music. “Now it’s 20 years after that concert, and I’m touring with people coming from the Muslim culture and working together,” Tzur explains.
One key difference, he notes, is that the Hindu and Muslim musicians with which he plays in this band are incredibly devoted to and informed by their religion without the tense shadow of Middle Eastern politics. As such, they see the middle ground on which his Jewish upbringing and their traditions reside. “The Hebrew language is the language that prophets have spoken — that was so special to them,” he explains. The charge that he gets from the spiritual traditions of India are reciprocated by their connection to his own. “We are so much these days involved with political side of religion, so we keep forgetting that the essence of it is very much sacred,” Tzur says. “For these people, the Qawwals, to sing in Hebrew is an elevating process. And for me, the Sufi poetic texts that were written in Urdu expressed divine feelings, and when I hear the sounds of it, I’m able to connect my heart to it.”
Tzur met Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood when the guitarist contacted him, inspired by his music. The two met and so enjoyed each other’s company and discussing music that they eventually decided to work together. That collaboration took the shape of Junun, a record fusing pieces as disparate as electronic beats, slow-bowed string instruments, and droning figures into a massive, stunning intercultural experience. But having spent a lot of his formative years in India immersed in traditional music, Tzur wasn’t necessarily familiar with Radiohead’s music. “I fell in love with all their creativity,” he says. “From listening to their music, I have a feeling that their fans are open-minded. Radiohead does make very different music, and I would like to think that the people that love them are also people with the same kind of adventurous mind.”
That proved true thus far for Tassa, as his slate of tour dates opening for Radiohead in North America proved to be a major success. “The crowd was amazing and welcomed us with a great deal of love,” he says. Tassa also has ties to Greenwood, with whom he’d collaborated with on a song from his 2009 album, “Basof Mitraglim Lehakol” (loosely translated: “In the end, you get used to all.”) “In my opinion, music is music, and if it is good, there is no barrier to [that] language.”