Jonny Greenwood and ‘Junun’: Where’s the Line Between Cultural Interchange and Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is a buzz phrase at this point, one that almost requires a trigger warning. All it takes is one bindi or feathered headdress to send bourgeois liberals into a tizzy over the “problematic” nature of appropriating other cultures.

Let’s be clear: the issue is certainly real. No Doubt’s original video for “Looking Hot” was as gross and lazy as Pat Boone’s cover of “Tutti Frutti.” But is it possible to be reverential and respectful of foreign art and culture that inspires us? Of course! We should do so, in fact. There’s nothing more boring than the masturbatory nostalgia cycles we often see in pop music, and sonic miscegenation between far-flung global scenes can only serve to benefit a more diverse musical landscape.

It’s with this perspective that we approach Junun, the collaborative album by Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajasthan Express. As the story goes, on a visit to the Negev desert in southern Israel, Greenwood heard a band playing a song with an Arabic violin called a rehab. In a first-person essay in the Evening Standard, Greenwood wrote:

“It was a strange mix of Arabic and traditional Indian music, one that I’d never come across before: melodically very strong but using non-Western scales in a way that was new to me. The best song, I found out, was written by Shye Ben-Tzur, an Israeli musician who had been living in India until this year. I set out to discover more about him.”

There’s something fascinating about the way Greenwood comes to this music; as a vacationing Westerner, through the third-party performance of songs composed by a Middle-Eastern artist living in India. Shye Ben Tzur began his career playing rock music, until at age 19 he saw the Indian musicians Hariprasad Chaurasia and Zakir Hussain in concert in Jerusalem. Within months, he was on a plane to India, studying music, marrying into the mystical Sufi branch of Islam. It’s not so much of a stretch to imagine an American Radiohead fan hearing Junun, having his mind blown, and falling headfirst into his own new obsession. Greenwood has specifically cited Damon Albarn as a role model for how to collaborate respectfully with musicians in post-colonial nations, and it’s easy to draw parallels, even if Greenwood tends to recede even more into the background that Albarn has during his long history with Malian music.

These versions of Eastern culture migrating West seems natural, respectful, and rewarding for all parties involved. And at least so far, it seems to have escaped any particularly noteworthy critiques of appropriation. Why is that? What makes this different from say, Paul Simon’s Graceland? Vampire Weekend has arguably gotten more shit than Simon ever did for their shared curiosity in African music, but the real crime on Graceland is “All Around The World (Or the Myth of Fingerprints),” a Los Lobos collaboration that inexplicably left that band out of the credits (and subsequent royalties). Much was made of how Simon paid the African musicians he collaborated triple the standard American rate, and even cut them in on the publishing. But Los Lobos, without the benefit of the public’s attention on the rapidly shifting political climate in South Africa, just had their work stolen and their contribution downplayed.

So how does one draw the line between cultural interchange and cultural appropriation? There are a few things at play here. First is respect; the easiest way to deservedly elicit accusations of cultural appropriation is to assimilate influences without any deference or respect (we’re looking at you, Iggy Azalea). Simon seemed to have no respect for Los Lobos’ contribution to his song, and it clearly shows. The same can be said for hip-hop-influenced bro country, that abhorrent No Doubt video, and countless other examples of disrespectful cultural tourism.

But second — and perhaps most important — is the fact that Western musicians, usually white ones, are positioned as the cultural gatekeepers for the international diaspora of music. The idea that musicians from non-Western countries are entirely disenfranchised and are powerless to protect themselves from exploitation by Western artists would be laughable if it wasn’t so offensive. But most are smart enough to understand the reality: The Damon Albarns and Jonny Greenwoods of the world, like the Peter Gabriels and Paul Simons before them, are offering them a way into the international market, a key to the backdoor of mass media.

In a 1986 story in The New York Times titled “Paul Simon Brings Home The Music Of Black South Africa,” Simon told Stephen Holden of his trip: “Before going I consulted with Quincy Jones and with Harry Belafonte, who has close ties with the South African musical community. They both encouraged me to make the trip. I later learned that the black musicians’ union took a vote as to whether they wanted me to come. They decided that my coming would benefit them, because I could help to give South African music a place in the international musical community similar to that of reggae.”

The musicians in question were clearly savvy enough to understand that Simon was their way for their music to be heard by as many people as possible. Is it more than a little fucked up that they needed a white folk singer — who first heard of their music mere months prior — to share their art with the world? Absolutely. That we need these rich Westerners to “discover” this “exotic” art from abroad, because we’re too poor to travel abroad to where it’s made, too distracted by our narcotic Top 40, or too lazy to look ourselves, is shameful and embarrassing.

But by all accounts, Greenwood’s reverence for this music is clearly demonstrated. And for his part, he has never had frontman dreams like Albarn and Simon; he would never put out a record made with Eastern or African musicians and put only his name on the cover. He doesn’t even get top billing on Junun. In the Paul Thomas Anderson documentary of the same name that captured the collaboration, Greenwood is decidedly in the background, on the literal edges of the frame, happy to play a supporting role. It’s one of the more redeeming qualities of the album; it’s an East/West collaboration that feels truly equal, that elevates each artists’ work to create a whole that supersedes the sum of its parts.

Junun is out Friday, November 20 on Nonesuch, but you can stream it now on NPR’s First Listen: