Bury yourself in Arab circles.
— T. E. Lawrence
Death has had no noticeable effect on Bryn Jones’s musical output. If anything, he’s releasing music faster than ever. No fewer than fifty posthumous albums have hit the market since the passing, eight years ago, of the percussionist and electronic musician better known as Muslimgauze. There are now at least 180 Muslimgauze releases, and more are on the way (though Jones’s habit of mailing lengthy recordings to collaborators, with no instructions on what to do with the material, guarantees that nobody knows when the next will arrive). Staalplaat Records is offering a discount subscription — “for every new Muslimgauze limited release” — only fifty euros. Reissues keep appearing as well, often in new packaging, though much of his Borgesian discography remains out of print.
Jones’s work has only become more controversial in the years since an unspecified “blood fungus” killed the 37-year-old musician. His project began in 1983 as a personal response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. “Muslimgauze,” Jones tirelessly explained, “are pro-Arab/Palestinian and detest the vile stench of Israel.” Gone was EG Oblique Graph, his earlier nom de guerre. Jones reinvented himself, titling his project after a clumsy pun. Many of his album titles are unmistakable in their bias — The Rape of Palestine, Vote Hezbollah, United States of Islam. His song titles — “Submit to Sharia,” “Rabid Zionist Dog Muzzle,” “Israeli Bullet Passing Through the Body of a Palestinian Child” — followed suit. From the beginning, Muslimgauze’s album art revealed a predilection for repurposed Koranic calligraphy, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and photographs of veiled women hefting guns. It’s a cumbersome, intentionally provocative oeuvre. Especially for a white British guy with no familial ties to the Middle East. In fact, Muslimgauze wasn’t even a Muslim. He was a reclusive bedroom producer in cultural drag, who never set foot in an Islamic country.
I stumbled across Muslimgauze as a teenager, digging through the “experimental” crates of a record shop in downtown Boston. I was an industrial kid, a devotee of Test Department, amused and intrigued by the visual extremity of the expensive UK imports. On a listen, I was hooked: Jones’s influences were mine, too — Jamaican dub, Northern European industrial bands, avant-garde electronics. The Muslimgauze sound has ranged from moody ambience to tribal dance floor workouts. He worked primarily with drum machines, ethnic percussion, synthesizers, and tapes. Occasional melodies alluded to Arabic scales. Street recordings with snatches of Arab voices provided Jones with vague geopolitical verisimilitude, although there were never full vocals or lyrics. “Everything is very experimental,” he said. “A piece can be marvelous or shit.”
Folks whose first Muslimgauze encounter lay at the shit-end of the spectrum are often turned off for good. And some albums do sound like reverb-drenched World Muzak. Others stall out into painfully repetitive drumbeats. “You need Afghani opiates or Moroccan kif to enjoy it,” runs a common Muslimgauze joke. It’s not unfair to say that much of his output feels like the artifact of a ritual or drug reverie.
The electronica boom of the 1990s won Manchester’s bedroom visionary a new generation of fans, drawn to his restless experimentation. The minimal percussive pieces of his early years evolved in two directions. One branch continued to explore looped drums and distortion (though perhaps “explore” is too strong; certain tracks change so little that they sound like a skipping record). On the other hand, Muslimgauze‘s strongest work blossomed into hypnagogic soundfields, simultaneously tense and seductive, estranging and compelling, full of half-buried signifiers. The listener could never be sure how to fit it together, nor how to fit in. At its finest, Bryn Jones’s music emits a dark, dislocative power, a sonic illustration of what Freud meant by “the uncanny.”
Listening to songs like “8A.M., Tel Aviv, Islamic Jihad” helps one understand the strange genius of Muslimgauze. He had no interest in making Middle Eastern-sounding music. Jones was after Middle Eastern-sounding sound. He fetishized the poor (re)production quality of its cheap cassette tapes, obsessively reproducing those sonic effects. He made audio environments instead of songs. Distortion was his most obvious production trick, but Muslimgauze had a subtle and masterful hand with reverb — the art of positioning sounds in space. Indistinct noises swirl around, implying multiple narratives on the brink of intelligibility. If you hear his songs as space, their length and repetitive nature seem less like mistakes. But then you remember their titles. 8AM, Tel Aviv, Islamic Jihad! Regardless of one’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict, it’s unnerving to think of oneself as grooving along to a call to arms.
So why do I like this song as much as I do? I suppose it’s that I perceive his core convictions as at odds with his art. The Englishman’s fiercely black-and-white politics steamrolled Israeli humanity with such gusto that the texture and polyvalent reality of Arab life was flattened as well. But Muslimgauze’s music is too weird, too intrinsically vague to serve any political purpose. We face an awkward possibility: to hear Muslimgauze, we must not listen to Bryn Jones.
Nor pay much attention to his cover art. Although Muslimgauze’s imagery has always suggested to me some neo-Orientalist version of Leila Khaled’s cosmopolitan Hepburn-as-hijacker chic, it barely made an impression as I started to listen. As far as I could tell, knowing little about Jones, the band was steeped in industrial music’s culture of provocation. Laibach had the totalitarian-irony look down pat; Coil opted for a gay-magick vibe; Psychic TV fetishized Charles Manson and Jim Jones; Muslimgauze embraced militant Arab agitprop. Every “transgressive” band needed an outrage, and their album covers were neither more nor less meaningful than anyone else’s. Under the assumption that Muslimgauze was a group of British Arabs (secular, who probably dressed like Goths and wore eyeliner to the clubs), I disregarded the album art and dived into the music. It’s harder to do that now.
I wasn’t the only one who learned of his uncomfortable biographical details by reading the obituaries. Articles half-forgotten in underground magazines began circulating online; fans and critics started putting it all together. Christoph Fringeli, who runs the Praxis label, noted in his magazine Datacide that Jones himself insisted that his musical inspirations were entirely political, admiring “leaders such as Arafat, Khomeini, Qaddafi, Saddam, Abu Nidal, etc, as well as organizations such as the PLO, Hamas, and Hizbullah.” A grab bag of Islamists, communists, and old-fashioned Arab nationalists — “in short, everybody and everything that is waging war against Israel.”
“My enemy’s enemy is my friend” is dubious politics at best — especially for a white armchair Arabist making proclamations about a land he’d never visited. “Bryn Jones’s core convictions could only be maintained by massively simplifying tragically complex conflicts,” explains the Loosavor blog, “and they led him to develop a rather unwholesome fascination with, and even support for, despots and their repressive regimes.”
In a 1994 interview, Jones said, “I wouldn’t talk to any [Israelis]; the whole people are disgusting, so no, I wouldn’t.” A year later, Jones said that “Muslimgauze have no link with any Palestinians. They have enough trouble without having a Mancunian’s music thrust upon them. It’s the vile regime they have to live under that Muslimgauze finds so unacceptable. The situation will slide downwards into a final outcome, in the Palestinians’ favor. Any direct action taken in occupied Palestine is justified.” These themes remained constant. What to do about all the hate mail accusing Jones of bigotry and anti-Semitism? “Tell them to fuck off,” he told his webmaster.
And the albums keep coming. Some new Muslimgauze releases are being put out with even more controversial artwork. The No Human Rights for Arabs in Israel LP released during Jones’s lifetime came wrapped in a wonderfully understated sleeve made from handmade paper. Titles were impressed into the paper. The two posthumous versions by Staalplaat display a color photograph of a bloodied boy in bandages, one eye swollen shut. The image is photojournalism, a real artifact of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s no longer about art.
Or is it? I’m not the only one struggling to come to grips with the music’s context. One commentator on the music networking site Last.fm advises newcomers to “get past the ridiculously fundamentalist/trollish titles of his tracks and albums as they bear no relation to the music at all.” At the other end of the spectrum, a French fan lauds Muslimgauze for evoking Middle Eastern historical glories that span millennia: “Every piece recalls to us the Orient of Saladin, of the Great Father of the Martaque and his Hashascheem, Baalbek and Babylon, Baghdad and Jerusalem, Darius and the Persia empire.” (And I thought I was a careful listener!) London-based musician Seth Ayyaz notes that Muslimgauze “was about intensity, anger, fear, rage, injustice, no hope… the older generations of [Arab] musicians, they couldn’t get it.” And yet, Bryn Jones “made perfect sense to those of us growing up as part of the UK Muslim diaspora, unable to identify with white British culture, nor [the culture] ‘back home.’ Deep in Thatcher’s capitalist bunker, miners’ strikes, unremitting pro-Israeli propaganda, the man was a fractured lock groove, and a kind of hash-hashin of early techbeats. At once of the traditions, but very alien from it.”
A few months ago, my band, Nettle, performed in Berlin. Among the other acts was Geert-Jan Hobijn, Staalplaat label-boss and de facto executor of Muslimgauze’s work. Hobijn was responsible for the photo of the brutalized boy on No Human Rights. The Dutch musician had been invited to DJ unreleased Muslimgauze music.
After our gig some German friends apologized to me backstage. “A lot of people wanted to see you play, but they boycott anti-Semitic music like Muslimgauze.”
Earlier that night I’d caught Hobijn’s sound check. He had arranged four or five air-raid sirens around the room and stood onstage by a table with DJ equipment. The rumbling soundtrack made me think of war-sudden volume spikes, indistinct murmurs, uncomfortable sounds. Loud. Other people’s sound checks are always annoying, but this one was excruciating. Hobijn’s air-raid sirens had been wailing for five straight minutes. He frowned, fidgeted with his equipment. “They are glorifying the ambiance of war,” I told myself, “taking pleasure in simulating a Western media-fantasy of the Middle East, configured as both conflictive and timeless.”
The sirens continued. My bandmate Abdelhak Rahal, a Moroccan, was grinning. The klaxons blazed on. What had it been — ten, fifteen minutes now? People had their fingers in their ears. The bar-staff had left, shooting Hobijn ugly stares on their way out. Hobijn — primary caretaker (or occupier) of Muslimgauze territory — couldn’t switch off his own alarms. Abdelhak had to shout for me to hear him over the din. “These sirens… It’s just like Fez during Ramadan! This is how they call everybody to dinner!”
He closed his eyes, nodding appreciatively as a nostalgic smile spread across his face.