Interviews Masada Marathon

Continue the hypnosis – Shanir Blumenkranz talks Abraxas, Gevurah, Masada as spiritual music and the personal significance of his instruments

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As The Book Beriah makes its first appearance in Europe, with a mini-marathon at Jazz Fest Sarajevo and a series of concerts at Porgy&Bess, Vienna, The Music and Myth continues its own Masada marathon, presenting an interview with Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz.

A musician of remarkable depth and versatility, Shanir has an interesting and intricate history with Masada. Since his first appearance with Rashanim on Masada Rock, Shanir has produced Masada records with Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits, Zion 80 and, most recently, Secret Chiefs 3. His first album as a bandleader was Abraxas (The Book of Angels Volume 19), a project centered around the gimbri, a three-stringed lute commonly used by Gnawa musician-healers. He is the most featured musician in The Book Beriah, appearing on four of the eleven records, one of which is Gevurah, the follow-up to Abraxas. Together with his friend Jon Madof, he also runs Chant Records, a label dedicated to releasing “adventurous and uncompromising music across the spectrum”.

I caught up with Shanir at the start of the week, to talk about Abraxas, Gevurah, his long collaboration with John Zorn and the personal significance of his instruments.

In my interview with Jon Madof, he mentioned it was your idea to give Zorn the demo of Rashanim that ultimately got the trio involved in Masada. Had you worked with Zorn before at that point?

Yes. The first records I made on Tzadik were with a saxophone player named Danny Zamir. We had a trio [with Kevin Zubek on drums] called Satlah. It started back in 1999. I made three or four records with that band. Within the Masada book, it was Masada Rock first.

After Satlah, I started to play with Jon Madof and Rashanim was formed [featuring Mathias Kunzli on drums]. We made recordings and were just looking for a way to put them out. Zorn was the ideal situation. We were lucky that he liked the music and took it. From there came the idea of Rashanim playing Masada.

Being involved in so many projects within the Masada family must give you a really broad overview of the music. How did that influence you when forming Abraxas?

The first record of Masada Book 2 that I was involved with was Caym, with Cyro Baptista for Banquet of the Spirits. I had the music in my bag a long time before it was decided, before the idea of making it with Cyro came. It was so perfect because we were able to take the music to many strange places.

After that, Zorn asked me to maybe do something on my own, so I formed the band Abraxas. Talking with Zorn, we thought, “What would be a great addition to these Masada marathons that take place?” At that point, we had lots of acoustic music, leaving lots of different areas unexplored. We thought it would be great to have something that was like an attack, kind of an aggressive band. This seemed to be something that would be a great addition.

At the time, I was addicted to this instrument called the gimbri. I’m still addicted to it. It’s a Moroccan instrument that is meant for trance, meant for healing and hypnosis. So I had this kind of addiction to the gimbri and, at the same time, I was talking to Zorn about doing something that was powerful and electric and intense. I was able to bridge these two worlds.

In the music than is meant for healing and hypnosis a lot of the elements come from noise. You need noise in order to take you out of the area you’re in and put you into a mode where you can be helped and healed, where something can change inside of you. So I found the craziest guitar players I could find, Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz. The problem was the drummer, but we found the real killer – Kenny Grohowski. That’s how Abraxas came about.

I think Abraxas was one of the first projects to really take the Masada music to a more aggressive place, wasn’t it? 

Electric Masada also took it to a very aggressive and extreme place but, for Abraxas, it really comes from the idea of noise and how to incorporate noise in a way that is not really meant for attack, in general. I see the music that Zorn wrote as spiritual music. I think, in 100 years, we will look back on it and it will be considered one of the major spiritual musics of now. To really explore it in a spiritual way and try to make it into something that could be a healing ritual… it’s perfect for that.

Also, in the Gnawa music, where the gimbri comes from, they have the qraqab, which is like a castanet that comes from Sub-Saharan Africa and was brought to Morocco. For me, a lot of those musics are dealing with noise, so I thought to deal with noise in the way we do it here in New York.

Tell me a little bit about the gimbri. How did you get interested in this instrument?

I guess, when you’re young, you try to figure out who you are, you know? For me, the clear path to figuring out who I am is to look to where I’m from. Where is my family from? What is my DNA?

My mother is from Egypt and her parents come from Syria, and the parents before that were from Morocco. When I learned to play oud, it was directly because I ate the soup my grandmother served. This is the main element of why you can play an instrument. It’s if you eat the food, I think. And gimbri also comes from my history. It’s in my DNA already. The idea was to choose the instruments that were associated with my DNA.

One of the things I always found interesting about Masada is the way this music transcends cultural barriers. Zorn designed it as “new Jewish music” but it has a universal appeal. No matter who you are and no matter your personal history, I think you can find a bit of yourself reflected in it. I’m from Romania, which is in Eastern Europe and currently has a rather small Jewish community. I’m not Jewish, yet I instantly connected with this music in a way I’ve never done with Romanian folk-rooted music of any kind. What made you connect with the music of Masada emotionally? What does Masada mean to you on a personal level?  

First of all, it’s a Jewish idea. The name is Masada for a reason. But, at the same time, these roots that are Jewish… every third person you meet that lives in Israel, their parents come from Romania. We all share similar roots. The Jewish music that came from Romania and the non-Jewish music that came from Romania… they’re very close. The sounds are close. The scales are similar. We all share a lot of background.

I think that’s why many people identify with the Masada music, not even necessarily in a Jewish way but just as part of their history. The sound of it is the sound of many musics from the past, of many different religions. Sometimes it can sound Arabic. In the Arabic world, there’s Muslims, there’s Jews, there’s Christians. Sometimes, it can sound European, Eastern European. Many religions are coming from there. I think it touches the person in a historic way, something they can remember from their past and from their grandparents. That’s the genius of Zorn, how he is able to tap into emotions that touch people from all across, no matter where they come from.

Could you tell me a bit about transition from Abraxas to Gevurah? Did the fact that you were involved in so many different Masada projects influence you creatively?

Each thing is its own world, in a way, and has its own language. In Abraxas, the first record was really kind of a struggle, because certain elements need to be in place in order for it to work. In the beginning, the musicians weren’t really sure what I wanted from them. We had to work a little bit to bring out this energy that was needed. Then, after touring for a few years and by the time The Book Beriah came, we were already at full power.

When you look at the blueprint of Zorn’s music, there’s so much information there. Even though it’s only a few lines of music for each song, there’s so much information. If you filter it through the world of Abraxas, that’s what comes out. If you filter it through the world of Zion 80, then that’s what comes out. Everyone has their own filter. Zorn’s music passes through and the outcome is different.

How does the fact that you are involved in so many Masada projects reflect on your identity as a musician? Does it feel differently every time you are on stage with a different band, playing this music?

Yeah, every situation feels different. I am still me on the stage, always. But each band calls upon a different skill set and a different outlook on the music. You have to adjust yourself to every situation. Each one is different, you know? In Abraxas, I serve a specific function, which is to continue the hypnosis, continue the momentum. I hardly take any solos. I just keep this mantra and let the other guys do things. With Zion 80, it’s more a kind of afrobeat and we groove. Secret Chiefs 3 is very precise. Each one has its own thing. With Cyro, I play upright bass and it’s coming from a little more of a jazz tradition.

What are some of your favorite records in the Masada catalog?

Well, I grew up on those original Masada CDs from before they were on Tzadik. Those are very special to me. Alef, Beit, Gimel, all those. Then, the one with Bar Kokhba, that’s kind of an extended lineup – it’s incredible.

The first Abraxas is very special to me and Caym, the one with Cyro. Each one I’m involved with has its own story behind it and its own moments which are beautiful. Each one is a beautiful experience that I can remember. There’s many that I love, but the first ones are really special to me because they’re in my childhood.

What’s next for Abraxas? Do you want to extend the project outside of Masada?

Abraxas has recorded a few songs in France last tour and we have another tour coming up in Januay of next year, in Europe. We’ll be playing Masada Book 3 but we’ll be playing original music too, so we hope to have a new CD out soon.

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