"Wordless in Gaza: The Radical Electronica of Bryn Jones"
presentation by Leonard Price
"Wordless in Gaza: The Radical Electronica of Bryn Jones"
Nearly a decade after his unexpected death, Bryn Jones – the singular mind who created a vast body of inventive music under the name Muslimgauze – remains one of the most enigmatic and contradictory figures of his time. A vociferous defender of Palestine, he was neither Arab nor Muslim; a man completely immersed in the culture of the Middle East, he never visited the area; a pioneer of modern electronic music, he eschewed computers and digital instruments; an incendiary political firebrand who created unmistakable protest music, his songs contained no lyrics whatsoever. Who was Bryn Jones, and what was the music he created? Was he the cultural advance guard of Palestinian liberation, or a cultural tourist posing as a revolutionary? Did his methods make him a pioneer of a new electronic music, or mark him as a reactionary Luddite? How were his beliefs echoed in his work, and how did he communicate radicalism in a music without words? Did his pro-Arab stance express as anti-Semitic? And did his career have any impact on the struggle that defined it? In a post-9/11 world Bryn Jones never lived to see, Muslimgauze's music can be heard as an trumpet of treason – or the soundtrack to freedom.
First of all, thanks to an inexplicable typo on my part, this lecture originally made reference not to Muslimgauze’s Bryn Jones, but to Glyn Johns. To those of you who are here to hear me talk about the legendary producer, I apologize, but I’m afraid you'll have to wait until next year for my presentation entitled “Most of Us Are Sad: The Role of the Four-Mic Drum Setup in Unleashing the Eagles on the World.”
There were times – lots of them, as recently as last week – where it didn't seem like it would be possible for me to be here today anyway, at least not armed with any information beyond what you could find on Wikipedia. I've been fascinated, maybe even obsessed, with Muslimgauze’s work for almost ten years, but it wasn't until I started preparing to give this talk that I realized how much there is of his music – and how little there is of the man who made it. He must rank as one of the most prolific musicians of the 20th century, with as many as 200 albums in existence and new releases being prepared every day; but, as impossible as it seems in our media-saturated and hyper-documented society, almost nothing beyond a few basic facts are known about Bryn Jones.
Those basic facts are these: he was born in 1961, in Manchester, England. He began his recording career in 1982 and put out the vast majority of his work – experimental electronica highly influenced by the music and culture of the Middle East – under the name Muslimgauze. His work was fiercely political, highly combative, and rigorously formal, and it managed to become somewhat influential without ever enjoying any kind of widespread popularity. Most of his work was released by the Staalplaat and Soleilmoon labels, and he continues to enjoy a small but fervent cult following. Beyond that, his life is almost a total cipher.
He never married, and left behind no children. His only living relatives were not in close contact with him for most of his adult life. He tended to work in isolation, and generally avoided collaborations, with a few exceptions. Although an exceptionally talented performer, he did not enjoy performing live, and registered less than 20 live performances in a career that lasted almost as many years. He had few close friends, and his band consisted of only himself. He hated giving interviews and those he did give were often brusque and confrontational – he ended one by saying “If you have shown an interest in Muslimgauze, thanks. If you haven’t, sod off.” Although he put out a huge number of records, he betrayed almost nothing of himself in the liner notes. In fact, researching this talk, it was almost impossible to find a photograph of Bryn Jones. And, of course, I can’t ask him for one: the remarkable man behind Muslimgauze died in 1999 at the age of 37 of pneumonia brought on by a rare blood infection.
Since his death, Jones has been more prolific than Tupac: no less than 25 full-length Muslimgauze releases have come out since his death, and dozens more are in the works, all recorded during an incredibly productive phase of his career in the mid- and late 1990s where he was laying down dozens of tracks a day and sending off as much as an album a week to his record label. With such a massive body of work to consider, why is it even necessary to know anything about the man? Isn't the music enough?
If I have become excessively bewitched by the man behind Muslimgauze, he has no one to blame but himself. Perhaps no contemporary recording artist has embodied such contradictions between man and music as did Bryn Jones: compared to the Janus-faced truths of his life, the street-life anthems performed by respectable millionaires are easily reconciled. Jones was a true enigma, even to those few who have spent endless hours researching his life; both his biographer and the maintainer of the internet’s primary Muslimgauze web site admit to huge gaps in their knowledge of his life and personality. His record labels had almost no dealings with him outside of the basic exchange of materials. The paramount fact of his life could not be more clear: he made music inspired by his sympathy with the occupied people of Palestine, and with those suffering from oppression throughout the Middle East. Why he did this, though, is as great a mystery as there is about the man.
The basic contradictions of Bryn Jones’ musical persona are so widely known amongst his fans that it seems almost trite to repeat them. But in the greater world, he is still largely unknown, so I will be brief. Fascinated by Arab music and Islamic culture, he was himself neither Arab nor Muslim. (In fact, one of the few musicians with whom he felt comfortable collaborating, dub DJ the Rootsman, actually is a practicing Muslim and has said of Jones that he “never came across as a person who was interested in Islam as a religious faith” and didn't have a deep understanding of it.) Obsessed with the political struggles of the Palestinian's, he never visited the area or anywhere else in the Middle East or South Asia. (When the Australian Extreme label offered to fly him to Palestine at their expense, he refused on general principles, saying he would not be a tourist in occupied lands.) An early pioneer of electronica, he never used computers or electronic samplers in any of his works. (Though he did employ manual tape sampling and drum machines, he generally eschewed new equipment, and disliked using any technology that would not be available to people recording in occupied Palestine.) A man whose entire musical identity was defined by political protest – he often claimed that “Every Muslimgauze track begins with a political fact” – he never once added lyrics to his music. Only the liner notes and song titles give away their political intentions, and the only human voices ever heard in his songs are from his vast collection of recordings of people speaking Arabic – a language Jones himself did not understand.
What could possibly have inspired a 22-year-old middle-class Mancunian graphic designer to so have so fully handed over his life to a cause wholly alien from his daily reality? In nearly every interview he ever gave, Bryn Jones pointed to two events as defining his transition from music dabbler to defiant pro-Palestinian propagandist: Israel’s US-backed invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the following year. To him, the contempt shown to the people of the Middle East by both Cold War superpowers was emblematic of the very nature of oppression, and from that point forward, nothing else would matter in his music or his life. He saw the conflict in Israel as the defining issue of his time, and believed that everyone in the world would eventually find themselves on one side of it or another. His choice was made early on, and he never flagged in his support of Palestine. The sole criticism of Yassir Arafat he allowed himself was when the PLO leader signed a peace accord with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin – Muslimgauze responded with an album featuring cover art of their historical handshake, and the simple title Betrayal.
It was hardly the first, last, or even worst, provocative statement Jones would ever make. His support for Arab states free of foreign influence was unflagging to the point of being uncritical, and he never saw any reason to waste time condemning the actions of Islamic radicals while greater crimes were being committed by the wealthy and powerful. He made heroes of people we reflexively think of as monsters, and he revelled in the language and imagery of radicalism and violence. Any action taken by an occupied people, he said time and again, was justified.
And here is where one of the ugliest questions about Jones tends to arise: was he an anti-Semite? He often described the government of Israel as a “vile regime” and, with song titles like “Bagel of Poison” and “Tel Aviv Nailbomb”, it’s easy to get the impression that he was something more like a terrorist sympathizer than a mere foe of oppression. But this sort of condemnation by implication is exactly the sort of thing he railed against in his writing and interviews; so prevalent is the official point of view that, as he put it, “Israel is everywhere today”, whereas even the most tepid sympathy with the Arab point of view got you widely criticized or tarred as a Jew-hater. Contrary to rumors that dogged him throughout his career, Jones never sent money to the PLO or donated funds to any pro-Palestinian cause; his music was his only form of political action. Though he saw his art as a way to channel the rage he felt at the treatment of Arabs and Muslims, he claimed that to go any further would result in a situation where “my anger could only be inflicted on four walls”.
Indeed, his refusal to get directly involved, his religious and cultural distance from the people he so loyally defended, and his distaste for religion marked him, to some self-appointed guardians of authenticity, as something far worse than an anti-Semite: to them, he was a poseur, a fraud, a comfortable Englishman posing as a cultural vanguard of armed resistance. This is a charge that especially struck home for me. I’m an Arab-American – my father was a Saudi immigrant – but I was adopted as an infant by white American Christians from the south, and have no more authentic connection to the Arab struggle than did Bryn Jones, or Jenny Lind the Swedish Nightingale for that matter. If Jones was a fake for his detached interest in Palestinian liberation, what did that say for my own identical interest – let alone my interest in Muslimgauze?
For his part, Jones was quick to defuse such accusations. He had received no response to his music from the Arab lands, he said, nor was he interested in receiving any. It was of no more interest to him than the hate mail he got from people calling him an anti-Semite or an abettor of terror. What form the Palestinian liberation would take, and what they would do with their freedom once they achieved it, was academic to him: what mattered were the facts on the ground, the grim unending realities of daily life in the Middle East. His job – which he pursued to the detriment of all other pursuits for almost 20 years – was to put those realities into music, the only way he thought made any sense to approach the most important issue of his life. What people did from that point on was their own business. (An interview with Richard Gehr from the Village Voice in 1994 sees Jones laughing and ending the interview after Gehr tries to get him to contemplate his own life under Islamic fundamentalism; to Jones, this was rather colossally missing the point.)
If Jones was utterly dismissive of the political criticisms he sometimes received, he became downright bristly when someone attacked his music. The man behind Muslimgauze claimed to listen to no other music than traditional ethnic song from the countries he studied, and the occasional overheard snippet of pop music off the radio seemed to do little more than annoy or frustrate him. And yet the charge that his music was all samey and repetitive drove him to distraction; no one, not even the Zionist Occupational Government, received more scorn in his interviews that people who dared to suggest that if you’d heard one Muslimgauze record, you’d heard them all. Given the extreme technical restrictions with which he burdened himself – live percussion whenever possible, no electronic sampling, no digital looping, and live recording that often led to jarring shifts in tone and volume in the mix – Jones’ Muslimgauze records are, indeed, remarkably diverse; from 1982 to 1999, his music ranges far afield, from electronica to ambient to dub and reggae to worldbeat and IDM, with elements of industrial, experimental and even hip-hop to be found on various tracks.
For all the ferocity and passion he instilled in his albums’ political content, it’s likely that his lasting influence is a musical rather than a social one. His opinions on the politics of the Middle East likely had no more effect on the actions of terrorists, freedom fighters or ordinary citizens in the Arab street than this conference is likely to have on the next Danity Kane single, but elements of Muslimgauze’s approach have crept into the music of dozens of performers since his death. His life’s work may have had zero political impact on the struggle that defined it, but you can listen to a dozen electronica records of the present day, from Autechre to Pan Sonic to I Care Because You Do-era Aphex Twin to the Palestinian rap group DAM and hear bits and pieces of what Muslimgauze was constantly defining and refining.
Bryn Jones didn't like to think too far ahead. His work was his life – he spent all day every day recording – and he was generally uninterested in speculation. He was also a cynic of sorts, and saw no reason his career would ever end, if for no other reason than that he didn't think peace would ever come to the Middle East. (He did occasionally allow that if it did, he should have no trouble at all finding a new oppressed people to champion, as the world was never in short supply of them.) No one who knew him cares to speculate as to what path his career would have taken had he lived, but given that since 1999, we have seen a nation utterly paralyzed by fear of Islamic radicalism, an unprovoked invasion of an Arab country by the United States and Britain, and a near-demonization of the entire population of the countries that so obsessed him, it’s not hard to guess the approach Muslimgauze would have taken.
When I started writing this, I found myself asking: why did he care so much? What business was it of Bryn Jones what happened in Palestine? A little more than a month ago, the IDF launched what they called “Operation Hot Winter”, an incursion into the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the firing of rockets into Israeli areas. It resulted in a ratio of fatalities that was 110:1 in favor of the state actor. That was Muslimgauze’s business; and then, as now, business was good.
presentation by Leonard Price
at the Experience Music Project's annual Pop Conference (April 13, 2008)
There was a PowerPoint presentation of a brief slide show that played (accompanied by some Muslimgauze tracks) during the presentation. You can download the PowerPoint presentation here & the PowerPoint viewer can be downloaded here.
Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer, editor and critic. He is a staff writer for UR magazine, a featured film writer for Nerve.com's Screengrab and a senior editor for the High Hat, an online magazine of arts and culture. His work has appeared everywhere from Metal Edge to Spin. His Web site is "The Ludic Log" & his blog is "A Schediastic Hootenanny".