Muslimgauze, the Middle East in one room
Story of Bryn Jones, the English musician who dedicated his entire production to conflicts in the Islamic world.
On January 14, 1999, Bryn Jones, an electronic musician known by the pseudonym Muslimgauze, died. A couple of years before 9/11 and all that would follow, before certain issues became daily debate, with his death a voice that we are not sure we would have liked, but that surely would have been heard.
Jones was born in Manchester on June 17, 1961 into a middle-class family. Unemployed, he lived in the studio that had been built in his parents' house, producing music and leading a reclusive life. He had never moved from there except for a handful of live shows, including one in Japan.
When I was a student, I remember that to talk about contemporary alienation in the globalized world, I'm not sure which course, they mentioned the case of an English truck driver, almost illiterate and isolated from the world: thanks to listening to a series of audiocassettes, he had practically become a foreign policy expert. Not too differently, the socio-anthropological world is full of studies of communities that manage – with more or less success – to make their own the customs of worlds far removed from their own.
Bryn Jones had an obsession: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More generally, the Middle East and the Islamic world – Iran, Afghanistan, the Gulf War. His records have never ceased to show points of view that are not exactly blurred, right from the artwork and covers (which include weapons, veiled women and child soldiers) and the titles of albums and single tracks ("Fatwa",' Izlamaphobia', 'Vote Hezbollah', 'The Rape of Palestine'...).
Jones was not a believer, he was not close to religion, he was not an active militant, he never went to the Middle East even when they invited him. He was just a person very interested in the matter, and with clear ideas. How these could then live with his declared Thatcherism remains an open question.
His albums are released in a few copies by small labels, in a (almost) general disinterest that leads him to develop a certain amount of conspiracy, in the belief that they lied to him about the real feedback of his music. So Simon Crab, his producer (ed. Not actually his producer.):
"He was obsessed with the idea that we had screwed him over somehow - and I think we had screwed other people over - which is ridiculous. We barely sold a few copies of E.g Oblique Graph, I ended up giving them away - and very few of Buddhist On Fire. We didn't even come close to getting back on cost. And he was SURE that we had printed thousands of copies and sold them on the sly. I tried to reason with him for a while, but then I let it go. We never made up. It wasn't worth it."
It's always Crab who tells us that Jones' fascination with the Islamic world was quite sudden, and according to him - at least in the beginning - due simply to the fact that that was what the newspapers were talking about at the time. The initial idea was not very different from that of the imagination of many industrial groups, made up simply of "violent and shocking things".
We know in any case that he was a guy with a difficult personality, shy and introverted: too strange to be popular, but strange in too normal a way to be interesting. Complicit in his failure, his family - who practically only saw him at mealtimes - had no idea of the extent of his musical production, discovered mostly post-mortem; he himself, when he happened to talk about it, seemed to exhibit a mixture of enthusiasm and embarrassment.
Everything we've said so far could reduce this story to a Riddle Week curiosity. There is, however, the content of his production. It is a crime that Muslimgauze simply remains a "cult figure", known more than anything to a small circle of enthusiasts, somewhat snubbed by critics, rarely treated even in niche publications and kept at a proper distance from the encyclopedic manuals. As in the case of Jandek, another obscure and unknown "cult" musician, it does not help the endless production, and it is easy to brand it as a half-mad who has released too many records (in the order of hundreds: it is said to record more or less one per week). Of course there were high points and low points; that doesn't change the fact that he was extremely interesting and ahead of his time.
Not only aggressiveness but also great musicality and a certain sophistication: the construction of the pieces, the skilful way of incorporating the samples, the variety of percussive elements, the layers of bass, saturations, total control, repetition and the breaking of expectations... all aspects of which Jones proves to be a master.
And many musicians have listened to it carefully: the last decade of electronic music is full of the sounds that Jones had predicted. Wherever you hear techno hybridized with industrial, heavy Arab-Eastern influences, wobbly percussion – there's the shadow of Bryn Jones. He certainly stands out in the work of a heavyweight like Sam Shackleton, fundamental in outlining the sound of electronics of the last decade; as in practically the entire successful Vatican Shadow project by Prurient (Dominick Fernow).
It's more difficult to trace the opposite path, since Jones didn't say he was interested in listening to music other than his own (he probably didn't have the material time), and he was also very evasive about the sources of his samples. The only things I know he appreciated are Brian Eno and the Throbbing Gristle, and then Wire, Can and Faust - a few but good ones, in short - and obviously a lot of traditional music, from Japan, India and especially the Middle East; sources from which to draw inspiration and endless possibilities of sampling.
One can venture a subdivision into periods, which often mix or overlap: Jones has made albums of all kinds, sometimes publishing in the same album works that seem to have been made in completely different periods. It's almost impossible to outline an essential discography; we can name a series of interesting works, all more or less recommended, and try to build a road.
Starting from the industrial, and the first masterpieces ('Buddhist On Fire', 'Flajelata' – which more than industrial has been defined a harder and techno-primitivist My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts – the minimal 'Hajj', the very dark 'Coup d'Etat',' Abu Nidal' that focuses on the formula made of loops, ambient, disturbances and a lot of field recording: a truck passing by, gunshots, a woman praying...),the Muslimgauze project widens its horizons even more with the Nineties and the records on Extreme ('Zul'm' –at the same time among its most accessible and best produced, which seals the encounter with electronics more properly said, and 'United States of Islam').
He then went on to labels like Soleilmoon and especially Staalplaat and published some of the most interesting works, full of ethnic electronics, cinematic suggestions ('Vote Hezbollah', which combines electronics with a pronounced psychedelic vein, and 'Citadel'), of atmospheric drone music ('Veiled Sisters' - a minimalist flow inspired by India, among his most beautiful - and 'Return Of Black September', perhaps his most successful "ambient" record), dub (the posthumous 'Baghdad') and traditional ethnic music with a strong percussive imprint ('Narcotic', very varied and for this reason a good introduction record).
You can even find some noisey-hop accents ('Zuriff Moussa', 'Hussein Mahmoud Jeeb Tehar Gas' and 'Jaal Ab Dullah'), next to records simply not inscribed in any of the above categories (that masterpiece of 'Azzazin', made only of undulations and current, a kind of forced stay on the spaceship of Alien), but without forgetting the industrial roots (Blue Mosque, among its sickest, made of intuitions and terror, and 'Izlamaphobia', equally disturbing and fragmented).
The flood of releases is not over: Muslimgauze has left tapes on tapes, DAT on DAT, for a thousand other albums. In 2015 alone, Staalplat has released a dozen or so CDs between unreleased and autoremixes, and the release, by the same label, of the LP (hence a release heard as the most important one) practically Autechrian 'Ali Zarin'.
If among my favorites are 'Veiled Sisters' and 'Azzazzin', a place of honor should be given to 'Mullah Said' (1998), perhaps the last masterpiece among the albums produced during his life. Ethno-environmental suite, a tapestry of percussion, magic and claustrophobia for an almost tangible, arid and very warm sound. A perfect testament, before a completely unexpected death from complications of pneumonia.
The last controversial note on the sidelines is that of so-called cultural appropriation, real elephant in the room when we talk about Muslimgauze.
At the time it was certainly not a topic on the agenda and Jones may have been a luxurious forerunner: but if we look at it a little closer, we might see a genuinely consumed discography around these themes, which even at the time did not guarantee him much popularity or coolness. With all the naivety of the case, it's the things behind which he's spent a lifetime. "People can listen to a piece, read the title, wonder what it refers to, find out, think about it, study the issue. Whether he does it or not, I have no idea. But I hope so."
JD Twitch, who knew him, says of Jones that he did not proselytize at all in life, that he and a friend had tried and tried to make him talk about politics on the evening of a concert, but he had always deviated. Even Jill Mingo, press office for various labels, who worked with him until the end, says that he was not really that radical: he was pro-Palestinian, he loved to make music, but he did not have such a deep and analytical approach to the subject. Geert-Jan Hobijn of Staalplaat said Jones was extremely serious about the issue and yes, he really believed it, but he wasn't a fanatic. For example, he was not interested in religion, and when on one occasion he was cautiously approached by a group of Israelis for an interview, Jones was astonished at their surprise when he quietly agreed to chat. Remembers Hobijn:
"His opinion was firm and it didn't change whether he was with me or with Israelis. But he listened, and if they made sense, he would accept the answers. I read all his statements, and I disagree with all of them, but they were never racist or anti-Semitic, even though people accused him of being racist and anti-Semitic."
The legitimate question remains: why does a middle class man from Manchester decide to devote all his creative work to conflicts in the Middle East? Probably, while in this overproduction and this obsession he consumed his life (and incidentally casting his shadow on the most avant-garde electronic music of the first half of the decade), from the dramas of a people and an area of the world Bryn Jones managed to bring out himself: his problems, his tortuous personality, his ghosts.
Important sources for this article were From Azzazin To Gun Aramaic: Muslimgauze Two Decades On by Louis Pattison, published in The Quietus; and the monumental book Muslimgauze: Chasing the Shadow of Bryn Jones by Ibrahim Khider (Vinyl-on-Demand, 2014). We also point out the complete Muslimgauze: The Messenger.
Federico Sardo (Milan, 1985). A cultural journalist, he has collaborated with many newspapers, including Resident Advisor for years. He writes mainly for Esquire and VICE and is one of the main voices of Radio Raheem.
This article was originally published on the Pixarthinking website; the author would like to thank the editor Mattia Coletti.
Translation from original Italian was done using DeepL , Bing Translate & with the help of Andrea Schintu.
article by Federico Sardo
il Tascabile (June 17, 2020)