28 October 1994
Beyond the Veil
The DIY agitambient unit known as Muslimgauze was formed in 1982 as a direct response to Israel's invasion of Lebanon, says Bryn Jones, its founder, leader, writer, and sole performer. What Muslimgauze does is release mysteriously gorgeous music--lots of music: some 20 albums in a dozen years--inspired by the material specificity of a fact, event, or photograph. Jones's music exists outside any particular stylistic context: "The political facts of Palestine, Afghanistan and Iran influence the music of Muslimgauze" declares the back cover of the 1987 Staalplaat import Iran . Raised on Faust, Can, and Throbbing Gristle, the 30-year-old Brit now eschews all musical precedents whatsoever.
The first Muslimgauze album, 1983's Kabul , was inspired by Russia's invasion of Afghanistan; the most recent, Hebron Massacre (Soleilmoon, PO Box 83296, Portland, OR 97283, which also distributes Staalplaat), "was written in response to the February 25, 1994 tragedy in Hebron," then recorded and mixed in Manchester's Abraham Mosque. Hebron Massacre is a 25-minute clarion call, the sound of crisis, alarm, fear, terror, and mourning interspersed with clipped and obscure Arafat and Begin sound bites lifted from the BBC. The music, as usual, is less inflammatory than the package, which juxtaposes New York Times clippings about the slaughter at the Cave of the Patriarchs and the killing of Palestinian gunmen by Israeli soldiers a month later with stark profiles of the Israeli glilon machinegun. An anonymous Arab official dissects Dr. Baruch Goldestein's motivation for the massacre: "When they kill us they are crazy and when we kill them we are terrorists."
Twelve years on, Jones has amassed a substantial corpus of intentionally provocative product. One Muslimgauze cover from late last year reproduces in red the famous handshake that took place on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993. Arafat's hand overlaps Rabin's, with the title Betrayal printed in small, neat, golden type over the PLO leader's mitt. Dismally prophetic in light of the extent to which Israel has flaunted the agreement's stipulations, the graphic nonetheless appears an unseemly refutation of political business as usual. Another 1993 album, Hamas Arc (like Betrayal , a Staalplaat import), flaunts the indelible image of a pair of middle-aged Muslim women, cloaked in black, taking target practice in Tehran's desert outskirts. A third '93 title, Veiled Sisters (Soleilmoon), refers to the Kalishnikov machine gun and Katyusha rocket launcher favored by Hezbollah guerrillas.
Muslimgauze's output has mushroomed over the past two years, which have provided a ceaseless, violent muse for Jones's insistent drums and musing electronics. While his fourth 1993 album, Vote Hezbollah ("Dedicated to the freedom of Palestine") was released on Soleilmoon, a fifth, Satayjit Eye , was relegated to a DAT only obtainable from Staalplaat, which helpfully provided an insert card for the cassette with its Hamas Arc CD, which itself included tracks for an unreleased sixth album, Shekel of Israeli Occupation . Ninety-four has already seen the release of two albums, Blue Mosque (Staalplaat) and Citadel (Extreme), and two EPs, Infidel (Extreme) and Hebron Massacre (Soleilmoon). At least two more albums, Al-Zulfiquar Shaheed (Staalplaat import) and Salaam Alekum Bastard (Soleilmoon), are scheduled for the next few months. Don't wait for the videos.
I first encountered Muslimgauze a few years ago while interviewing the Chicago technoglam outfit My Life With the Thrill Kill Cult. Then and there, in the context of the technoids' hashish consumption, it had a ritualistic, incantatory feel, as though some minor blood sacrifice were up next. Later I came to realize how large a part spilled blood, the blood of martyrs and innocents, played in the Muslimgauze experience.
While Muslimgauze's beautiful, frequently Koran-inspired packaging and exacerbating titles smack of pure political agenda, the music itself aspires to timeless, utopian peace. You can float or fly through this stuff, let it loft you gently into the upper atmosphere, or pursue its dragon tails into imaginary Medinas. Sculpted from keyboards and electronics, a variety of international drums, and voices and sound effects snagged from Allah knows where, Muslimgauze aural presence is as abstract as its visual imagery is concrete. Diffuse, repetitive, pulsing incessantly, Muslimgauze's output bears affinity to ambient music that claims the decidedly different psychic terrain of such titles as "Eternal Drift," "Path of Harmony," and "Sunangel Summer." Reducing Muslimgauze to mere ambience does no justice to Jones's obsessions. Where ambient wants to chill you out with its lazy, looping beats, Muslimgauze's hot pulse aims to sweep listeners into significant, albeit imaginary, liberationist solidarity.
I'm never quite sure what to make of this elusive corpus, whose name itself suggests the hijab Muslim women are compelled to wear. Some tracks, such as Citadel 's "Shouf Balek" or "Beit Nuba," impressionistically suggest Bedouin culture, while "Missing Tibetans" and "Muslims of China" send us elsewhere. In truth, you could switch the pairs of titles with the music and still be left with whatever private sense you glean from it.
But where, you might ask, does a young white Mancunian get off celebrating the Other with such fervor? Is this a lot of art-school wank or what? No practicing Muslim himself, Jones has never been to the Middle East. "I wouldn't go," he once told an interviewer. "I don't think you can visit an occupied land. It's the principle. Not until it's free again." I spoke with Jones myself and found the conversation frustrating and awkward. He answers questions in thick, short phrases meant to convey his unshakable faith in the appropriateness of jihads and fatwas . Does Jones, for example, agree with outspoken accord opponent Edward Said, who found the October 23 Hamas bombing of a Tel Aviv bus a "criminal and . . . stupid" catastrophe?
"They're doing what they think is right," Jones says of Hamas. "They're fighting for the people. I don't think you can criticize them from the outside.
Didn't you find the attack at the very least counterproductive?
"I don't think so. No. Those people have got absolutely nothing. They're working from zero. They can't vote."
There must be other forms of resistance.
Said has suggested reviving the popular committees of the intifada's popular committees.
"But that can only go so far, can't it?"
But where does that leave Arafat, a hero to whom Jones has devoted at least half a dozen tracks?
"He's doing his best with limited means. The [[Palestinians]] have to have somebody, and he seems to be the best person. And Hamas can work in other ways, alongside. A two-pronged attack. He has no power over Hamas, so they can do their ideas and he can stick with talking."
When I ask him what reception he thinks his music might receive from the Bassij, fundamentalist Islam's culture police, he simply laughs.
My apparently limited interviewing skills exhausted by Jones's terse resolve, I return to his music, which for me reveals a soul more open than his mind. Islam literally means surrender to God, and I interpret the passivity of Muslimgauze's music, with its boundless soundscapes and timeless contours, as subtly evoking a righteous power whose spirit also suffuses the Bedouin, the freedom fighter, and the martyr. And yet, immersed in rhythmic landscapes and imaginary desert music charged by such titles as "United States of Islam," "Intifadah," and "Curfew, Gaza," I search constantly for the connections between Muslimgauze's music and the sloganeering that links them to the public sphere. As I write I'm listening to a track off the unreleased Arabbox . The calming gurgle of flowing water on the tape reminds me of how important that element is to the Middle East. Which makes me recall how Israel siphoned the Jordan River into the Sea of Galilee, thus threatening the lives and livelihoods of countless Palestinians who moreover are prohibited from sinking new wells or even deepening old ones. This intepretation may not have been the specific effect Jones had in mind, but he did want me to think, and he succeeded.
Jones's tactics epitomize the "nomad art" espoused by Deleuze and Guattari: a flowing, deterritorialized music anterior to any orthodoxy whatsoever. Despite the stridency of his opinions, no one could accuse Jones of formal analysis. I don't doubt the sincerity of his political convictions; in fact, I admire their untethered energy. Sharing the tiny Staalplaat/Soleilmoon labels with other obscure and mysteriously wonderful projects like Beequeen, Rapoon, and A Small, Good Thing, Muslimgauze albums sell only a few thousand copies each. Yet they make small yet powerful statements, each a paradoxical nexus of soothing art and hard politics. I assume that Muslimgauze will continue to generate music until Palestinians are treated with justice. I assume we are talking a life's work here.