Celebrated Israeli singer, musician and producer Dudu Tassa teams up with award-winning composer and guitarist Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead, The Smile) for a new album ‘Jarak Qaribak’, out 9th June on World Circuit Records. Produced by Tassa & Greenwood and mixed by Nigel Godrich, ‘Jarak Qaribak’ brings together vocalists and musicians from throughout the Middle East for a very special album of cross-border collaborations. ‘Ashufak Shay’, featuring Lebanese vocalist Rashid al-Najjar, is the first track to be unveiled from the album.
“When people listen to this music,” says Dudu Tassa, “I really love to imagine them thinking. . . what is this? It sounds 1970s, but there are drum machines, there are guitars but they’re singing in Arabic. . . what’s going on?”
What’s going on is a remarkable collaboration between two remarkable musicians. Israeli rock star Tassa and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood have known each other a long time. They’ve collaborated before – Jonny played guitar on ‘Eize Yom’ (‘What A Day’), a track on Dudu’s 2009 album ‘Basof Mitraglim Le’Hakol (‘In The End You Get Used To Everything). Asked what he likes about Jonny’s playing, Dudu replies “It’s everything I can’t do, and don’t know how to do.” Jonny, who is married into an Israeli family hailing originally from Iraq and Egypt, remembers hearing Dudu’s music twinkling amid the prevailing gloom of mid-noughties Israeli rock when Radiohead first visited. “What Dudu was doing had its roots in the Middle East,” says Jonny, “and I just found that more interesting. I was hearing that music at home a lot, as well.”
‘Jarak Qaribak’ translates, more or less, as ‘Your Neighbour Is Your Friend. It’s an expansive, inclusive sentiment. The songs on the album, and the singers, are drawn from all over the Middle East – and, in keeping with the theme established by the album’s title, each singer takes a turn at a tune from a country other than their own. So ‘Djit Nishrab’, a sultry, slow-building lament to love gone wrong by 1940s Algerian singer Ahmed Wahby, is performed by the 2020s Egyptian singer Ahmed Doma. ‘Taq ou-Dub’, a defiant kiss-off, is performed by the Palestinian singer Nour Freteikh. When Dudu takes a lead vocal himself, it’s on ‘Lhla Yzid Ikhtar, borrowed from Morocco. When a Moroccan – in this instance Mohssine Salaheddine – steps up, it’s on the Egyptian track ‘Leylet Hub’. The Jordanian traditional ‘Ya ‘Anid Ya Yaba’ is sung by a Syrian. And when the song is Israeli – as ‘Ahibak’ is – it’s sung by Safae Essafi, from Dubai.
‘Jarak Qaribak’ is scarcely the first time that Jonny has stepped beyond the boundaries of guitar rock. He has had a parallel career as a solo artist going back 20 years, to his soundtrack for ‘Bodysong’ – he has since composed the soundtracks for Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘There Will Be Blood’, ‘Inherent Vice’, ‘Phantom Thread’ and ‘The Master’ and Jane Campion’s ‘The Power Of The Dog’, among others; he has twice been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
But while Dudu grew up with this music, Jonny had to learn it, which meant unlearning a lot about being a rock guitarist – a challenge he’d previously confronted when working with another Israeli musician, Shye Ben Tzur. “‘Jarak Qaribak’ presented a similar set of problems,” says Jonny, “in that you have all these scales which don’t conform to western major/minor scales, and have notes which involve quarter-tones, and it’s very hard to impose a chord sequence on these melodies. It usually makes them collapse. It’s like reducing the resolution on a colour photo until it’s just squares.”
When assembling the tracks on ‘Jarak Qaribak’, Jonny reflects he was “trying to imagine what Kraftwerk would have done if they’d been in Cairo in the 1970s,” which is actually a pretty deft characterising of the overall sound of ‘Jarak Qaribak’. The singers mostly recorded their contributions wherever they happened to be, which presented some logistical challenges. Dudu recalls that trying to locate a functional studio in Beirut, so that Lebanese singer Rashid al-Najjar could do his vocal for “Ashufak Shay” was something of a struggle. There were other difficulties peculiar to the region whose music ‘Jarak Qaribak’ celebrates. Dudu acknowledges that some singers they approached were uneasy about working with an Israeli artist. “And,” he says, “it’s not like all the Arabic countries of the Middle East are friends among themselves.” Getting the Iraqi singer Karrar Alsaedi to Tel Aviv to record the Yemeni song ‘Ya Mughir al-Ghazala’ was a considerable bureaucratic feat (“I think,” says Dudu, “he was the only Iraqi passport holder in the entire country at that moment.”)
Though Dudu says that he scrutinised every lyric as carefully as he could for even the vaguest hint of a political subtext, and insists – accurately – that ‘Jarak Qaribak’ is an album of classic love songs, the romance and heartbreak they chronicle exclusively personal, neither Dudu nor Jonny are naïve enough to believe that nobody will project their own political prejudices onto this project, favourably or otherwise. “We didn’t want,” says Jonny, “to make out that we’re making any political point, but I do understand that as soon as you do anything in that part of the world it becomes political, even if it’s just artistic. Actually, possibly especially if it’s artistic.”
Dudu, however, believes that it would have been an act of bad faith to make ‘Jarak Qaribak’ any other way. “Israel,” he notes, “is a small country between all those countries, so we’re very influenced by those cultures and by that music. And a lot of us in Israel – like my family – are descended from people who came here from elsewhere in the Middle East, so everything gets mixed up.”
Listen to the new song 'Ashufak Shay' HERE.