Muslimgauze: the myth and the music

In the months since the death of Bryn Jones, the man who is Muslimgauze, I have immersed myself in his music to an unprecedented degree. In addition to playing what I already had, I have bought discs and exchanged for many others: especially since Soleilmoon and Staalplaat (the two main labels releasing Muslimgauze) have accepted people swapping CDrs of out-of-print titles. All up now, I have close to half of the current oeuvre, and a much higher percentage of the more accessible, recent parts. And while this will not be my last communication (I will continue to review new material as it becomes available), I want to put down some thoughts on the myth and music that have crystallized during this time. Much is thanks to the discussion had through the Islamaphonia news group and with a couple of people (particularly Terry Bennett) but these comments are all mine.

The myth

The man has been left out of the title of this piece because for most of us he was hidden behind the 'group' he created and the myth that arose. For many unfamiliar with the music, picking up bits and pieces from magazines or the 'net, Muslimgauze appeared to be an egotistical musical terrorist bent on self promotion: an unconscionable number of releases, all featuring Arab terrorist propaganda, from the music to the offensive covers.

And, like many myths, this has little basis in reality.

From the comments of those who knew him, Bryn was a quiet, gentle person whose passion was making music - a skilled percussionist he was drawn to the rhythmic middle eastern sounds. His private nature is emphasised by the fact that across all the releases I have seen, there is not one image of him - not common in the music world. He also had a wicked sense of humour for atrocious puns: the Abraham Mosque (his studio) is probably named after the Abraham Moss [shopping] Centre in Manchester, and there are track titles like 'Deceive for yourself', 'Resume And Shaduf', and 'Full metal yashmak' scattered among the more Arabic (acerbic) titles.

At some stage, this Manchuria, of apparent Welsh descent, was touched deeply by the Palestinian situation. All of us should be concerned about human rights violations, some of us try and do a little to change them - Bryn's way was to make people aware that there was an issue: initially in relation to Israel/Palestine and later around broader conflicts such as Chechnya. His main way was through album titles ('Return of Black September', 'Intifaxa', 'Fatah Guerrilla') and track titles, and through album dedications (many, such as 'Emak Bakia', to the PLO or 'Zuriff Moussa' to specific Palestinian's killed by Israel, here Abdullah Kalil Abdullah). His comments in the few interviews are somewhat confused, but the clearest statement of his aims came on the cover to 'Intifaxa' which quotes 'the music can be listened to without an appreciation of its political origin, but I hope that after listening the person asks why it's called what it is and from this finds out more about the subject. It's up to them. Go out an discover'.

An egregious self promoter - not really. More a prolific and dedicated musician who couldn't stop creating music: he stopped the production of 'Zealot' halfway through because there was extreme distortion the second disk. They were never able to decide if the problem was the CD pressing or the original DAT, as by that time Bryn had taped over the original. Similar but less intrusive distortion is on other pieces - he worked so fast he had little interest in keeping material. Also, it wasn't him pushing for multiple releases, according to Staalplaat it was their idea for the four LP 'Tandoori Dog' and the forthcoming 9cd 'Box of Silk and Dogs' - Bryn just sent out his DATs and let the music business decide what it wanted to run with, and he found fertile ground with Soleilmoon and Staalplaat (and incidentally, Muslimgauze releases are SOL2 and STCD001, suggesting quite a synergy between Muslimgauze and the early stages of these labels. Bryn apparently remarked that if these labels hadn't stepped in when his own was affected by a distributor crash, he may have left music behind).

As for the cover images, it would appear that again Bryn did not have 'control'. Once releases were no longer on his own Limited Editions, most covers were designed by/for the labels: Muslimgauze approved but didn't handle them. The most obviously offensive one is 'Fatah Guerrilla' with a picture of the Ayatollah, which you realise is painted on a rifle butt, and other feature war-related images. However, the majority actually have non-confrontational and aesthetically appealing covers. The most offensive is that for 'Emak Bakia' which is absolutely awful - very amateurish and tacky.

Finally, we can't blame Muslimgauze for our collecting tendencies: no one is forced to buy any of the product. For many people none or one or two Muslimgauze disks may be sufficient, but the fact some of us become addicts is not Bryn's problem. I imagine he was not really that concerned about us: his music and suppression of Islamic peoples were his focus.

The music

There is also a music myth - that Muslimgauze churned out albums that all sound the same. 'You've heard one Muslimgauze and you've heard them all'. There is a little truth to this - Bryn worked within a specific musical form. His basic technique involves percussion loops inter-layered with spoken and sung samples, various wind instruments and synthesizers. But that is like saying Mozart or Haydn worked within the limits of an orchestra and the rules of symphonic writing. Like them he explores and develops his musical tool and while you can recognise a Haydn symphony (which number more than Muslimgauze releases, at the moment) or a Muslimgauze piece, there are developments and surprises throughout.

I'm not going to try and present a complete Muslimgauze analysis here, but give a brief personal overview of some of the range found across the discography. And for detailed descriptions of some recent albums, see various reviews across ambience.

The early material is the closest to the Arabic roots, more fourth world. Some people consider that the albums on Extreme are the best examples of this Muslimgauze period, but the Soleilmoon release 'Coup D'Etat/Abu Nidal' should be mentioned as the only currently available example of the Muslimgauze released on the Limited Editions vinyl label: two of those feature on this CD, documenting the earliest style.

But Bryn soon showed his interest in stretching the format. 'Veiled Sisters' begat the stream of beautiful desert ambience, shimmering discs of languid music and bazaar samples ('Mullah Said', 'The Gulf Between Us' and 'Sandtrafikar' follow this line). Other recent material follows crunchy distorted lines where the rhythms become harsher and cracked ('Arab Quarter', 'Fedayeen'), there are the dub lines of 'Fatah Guerrilla' (dub production techniques are found across the oeuvre) while maintaining lyricism in 'Gun Aramaic', 'Narcotic' or 'Vampire of Tehran'. But it should be stated that few Muslimgauze releases contain a single 'style' over the whole disk.

Other disks seem to be exploring the fringes of his method. 'Emak Bakia' is close to the current fashion for minimal techno - very stripped back tracks which are developed over a series of remixes. This more experimental line is pursued in 'Zuriff Moussa' whose 24 short tracks are brief investigations of style and method ranging from musique concrete drip-and-noise loops to the vocal tour de force of the opening track, the second Arab Quarter disk ('eleven minarets') has a similar exploratory feel, as does the electronica seeping into 'Hussein Mahmood Jeeb Tehar Gass'. Two early Muslimlimited editions from Staalplaat 'Izlamaphobia' and 'Azzazin' show Muslimgauze venturing into new ground as brooding electronica suffuse and consume the beat, while 'Syrinjia' has an almost reggae feel to its rhythm and sounds. And finally, in this brief tour, the 'Mort Aux Vache' disk shows a loose, live sound.

But the chronology does not explain the music and its moods. While there was a general trend from simple fourth world music to a more complex electronica, it is not that simple. 'Emak Bakia' is a relatively early work but very modern, and my recent encounter with 'Izlamaphobia' amazed me - its chopped rhythms and harsh loops are closer to some techno than Islamic roots (someone made a very valid comparison with Aphex Twin, of the 'I care' period). And more astonishing for my having had a couple of years exposure to more recent excursions released after it.

Reflective of the dub-infused nature of the music, Muslimgauze was an inveterate re-mixer. Not only a series of albums called 'Remixs' but also between and within disks - many albums have tracks with the same name which are versions: 'Mullah Said' has two long tracks which are subtle variants. Another quirk is to not bother with track breaks - 'Return of Black September' or 'Uzbekistani Bizarre and Souk' have track titles but come as continuous pieces, and on the other hand 'Azzazin' has tracks but no titles.

He also worked on remixes with other people: Rootsman did a track on 'Sandtrafikar' and 'City of Djinn' is by The Rootsman and Muslimgauze. And the compilation 'Occupied Territories' has a diverse range of 'in' musicians remixing Muslimgauze (including 2 by Bryn Jones!), as does the earlier 'Infidel' on Extreme.

An overall view? As a rabid collector I can honestly say I haven't heard a bad Muslimgauze: there is some variation in quality, and some could have had some editing, but all of them are enjoyable and most have some surprises. I would not get rid of any of them, and will look for more: in my period of immersion I haven't got bored at all. Also, like many artists, Bryn revisited themes and recycled elements - it is fun trying to follow loops from disk to disk, pick recurring instrumental or voice samples, or renamed remixes: post-modern intertextuality.

If you move beyond the myth and into the music you will find a magical middle eastern musical world well worth the visit.

For all the Muslimgauze info you can need or take, visit Muslimgauze - The Messenger, including a fabulous discography. Click here to find Islamaphonia II, the Muslimgauze newsgroup.

Addendum

Following an email from a friend of Bryn's (Andrew Diey), I want to correct some error's I made due to my presumptions and misunderstanding.

Bryn, despite his name, was not Welsh.

The Abraham Mosque was not Bryn's recording studio: he recorded in his bedroom. However the Abraham Moss Centre (a school, not a shopping centre) had a facility called the cutting rooms, and it was here Bryn took material to be finalised with John Delf.

article by Jeremy Keens
This text originally appeared in Ambience magazine (April, 1999 Update).
Reproduced by permission.

horizontal rule
Back Muslimgauze