Gig review: Junun at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

Junun at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds. Picture: Gary Brightbart
Junun at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds. Picture: Gary Brightbart
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Through the hum of chatter, audience members slowly become aware of the peal of a trumpet and the rhythm of hand held percussion. As they look around the Brudenell to locate its source, seven members of the Rajasthan Express appear through the entrance and take up residence at the back of the room to play ‘Julus’.

An ebullient instrumental, it’s the perfect introduction to the Indian ensemble’s art of performance and style of qawwali (a form of Sufi devotional music). It’s nonetheless when they walk on stage and are joined by Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur that the fusion elements of 2015 album Junun (or ‘the madness of love’) become apparent.

Written and recorded with Radiohead multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, who’s seemingly too pre-occupied with Glastonbury to join the band tonight, the making of the album was captured on film by Paul Thomas Anderson in an hour-long documentary.

The multi-media project could be cynically viewed as cultural appropriation that drank from the same cup as 1968 George Harrison. Yet while the involvement of Greenwood has undoubtedly raised their profile, the result is genuinely multi-cultural and multi-lingual (the songs being sung in Hebrew, Hindi and Urdu).

Greenwood’s contribution is heard in the material, with his electronic beats kick-starting a number of tracks. There’s no doubting from tonight’s performance, however, that his role was perfunctory to the joyous overall sound.

As complex and hypnotic rhythms are built around percussion and Bollywood-style brass, Ben Tzur adds textures with guitar and flute. If these provide the dancing feet, then it’s the vocals that provide the emotional heart, with the front-man’s lead being complemented by the Express’ choral vocals.

These twin elements guarantee the accessibility of the music which, when combined with the obvious joy of the musicians to be on stage, transcends culture and language to bring unity at a time that it’s most needed.