Al Jar Zia Audio & Satyajit Eye

The following appears on Brainwashed.

I have long felt that the best possible thing that could happen for Bryn Jones' legacy would be for someone to brutally pare down his out-of-control discography to just the essentials, but I am tragically powerless to stop the tide of fresh dispatches from his seemingly infinite backlog of unreleased material.  This latest pair of albums in Staalplaat's archive series are predictably a mixed bag, but the album of almost entirely unheard material (Al Jar Zia Audio) is dramatically better than the previously released (but hard-to-get) Satyajit Eye.  That is both tantalizing and exasperating, as it guarantees that there will be many more albums to come and that Muslimgauze fans will be sifting through them in (financially ruinous) search of scattered gems for years.

Satyajit Eye was originally released back in 1993, but under very bizarre circumstances: it was free, but it could only be obtained by cutting out part of the insert from Hamas Arc and mailing it to Staalplaat with a blank DAT.  Consequently, I sincerely doubt very many people ever got to hear it until very recently, when it finally surfaced as a bootleg.  That is presumably why Staalplaat is releasing this now, though I think they could have safely let this one slip through the cracks.  In theory, I like the idea of a secret, special album that is only available through symbolic sacrifice.  In reality, however, I intensely dislike the idea of defacing album art to get a dire collection of studio scraps in an annoying format, so I am glad I missed out the first time around (and again with the bootleg).

This "expanded" reissue (on CD, thankfully) is quite a bit different than the original release, but it is no less staggeringly inessential.  For one, roughly half of the album's more substantial pieces ("Zion Poison," "Taureg," and "Satyajit Eye") are already available in slightly different form on the better and much easier to procure Vote Hezbollah album.  Secondly, the three "new" tracks added to this reissue, all titled "Remix from Vote Hezbollah," are fairly ridiculous: they are all basically the same clattering percussion loop regurgitated in 5-minute, 9-minute, and 18-second variations (the duration being the only perceptible variation).  Finally, I am confounded as to why the opening "Amritsar" was shortened from 14:54 to 0:26.  I have not heard the original version, but the new, streamlined version is essentially a dull, artless snippet of someone speaking in Arabic (presumably).  I would have shortened it even further by completely deleting it from the album.

Aside from the unique circumstances of its release, the sole other noteworthy thing about Satyajit Eye is that it is apparently one of the first recorded instances of Jones' incorporation of Indian music.  While that is mildly interesting historically, there are plenty of more successful experiments in this direction on future releases and I would prefer to listen to them.  Otherwise, the lone justification for this album's existence seems to be the presence of "Dhobi" and "Caste," which do not seem to be available elsewhere, unless there are cannibalized versions lurking around under different names (not unlikely).  Both are admittedly likable, but both would be fairly forgettable pieces within the context of a "real" Muslimgauze album.  Ultimately, Satyajit Eye is not just for completists only–it is solely for only the most indiscriminate completists.

review by Anthony D'Amico
Brainwashed (May 5, 2013)

The following appears on PopMatters.

A new release and a reissue provide as good an entry as any to hear and think about Bryn Jones' insanely prolific, now posthumous musical/political project and its complications.

I would never go to an occupied land, others shouldn’t. Zionists living off Arab land and water is not a tourist attraction. To have been in a place is not important. So you can’t be against apartheid unless you have been in South Africa? You cannot be against the Serbs killing Muslims in Bosnia unless you have been there? I think not. -- Bryn Jones aka Muslimgauze

Bryn Jones, who died of a rare fungal infection in his bloodstream in 1999, never converted to Islam; never left the UK; never spoke to an Israeli (or claimed to refuse to in interviews, at least); never asked permission for a damn thing he did; never cared what Westerners or Arabs or anyone else thought of his music; never stopped working. When he died, Geert-Jan Hobijn from his once and future label, Staalplaat, the Dutch imprint that has released much but not all of the deluge of recordings Jones made since 1983, estimated that he had enough material to keep putting out music for five years; it has been fourteen and the augmented reissues and archive releases still continue at a steady clip (limited, in these two cases at least, to issues of 500 apiece, although as you might expect Muslimgauze has a rich afterlife on the internet).

As with anyone who releases as much material as Jones has ( lists 108 full-length albums alone), it's impossible to accurately survey his work in any brief fashion. Generally percussive and laced with field recordings or vocal samples, almost always in Arabic, Indian, or other languages from the part of the world Jones fed on, channelled, championed, and never experienced, Muslimgauze tracks tend towards a dense, brutal repetition, hand drums and beats squeezed until they seem to be shredding themselves in your speakers. Some of his work induces trances; some, headaches. Almost every release bears artwork and titles that refer, often violently, to unrest in the Middle East, violence, injustice, hatred of Israel and the US and others, and unwavering support of Palestine, Hamas, Hezbollah, and so on.

Jace Clayton argues in his excellent essay on Muslimgauze from issue 11 of Bidoun magazine that Jones' 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... to hear Muslimgauze, we must not listen to Bryn Jones." But if "Jones" is the ideology and "Muslimgauze" is the sound, the former is sometimes loud enough to drown out the latter. Much the same way that Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust has sometimes been called too thoughtful to be an exploitation movie and too exploitative to be anything else, Muslimgauze and Bryn Jones' politics are too much an admixture of the good and bad to really separate them out.

Of course, Bryn Jones made records, not speeches or bombs; trying to get at the complexity and sometimes the venom of his politics isn't the same as saying that there's no aesthetic value to his work or that liking Muslimgauze is somehow bad; in a world full of problematic art, Jones' just happens to be more vividly problematic than most. Cultural appropriator? Armchair jihadist? Obsessive? Dilettante white interloper? I'm honestly not really in any place to judge, and trying to find out what kind of reception Muslimgauze has received in the Arab world (if it has at all) for this piece has been an exercise in frustration. With such a niche, obscure figure the simple fact is that most of the people who are going to write about Muslimgauze will do so because they are fans, so these issues get brought up, if at all, just to dismiss them, generally either because Jones is perceived as having his heart in the right place or because the music is loved. And the music, for what it's worth, is often brilliant; evocative, hypnotic, totalizing.

There's an entirely other aesthetic issue with the huge corpus that Jones created and that Staalplaat is parceling out (I'm glad they are doing so, mind you); even those who love Jones' work don't generally have the time or desire to grapple with the overwhelming vastness of it; given the surface similarity of so much of his music and the fact that Western fans of Muslimgauze seem to tend towards other noise/drone/experimental music rather than the music of the Middle East that Jones himself was so influenced by (in instrumentation if not necessarily melodically), chances are fairly good that your average Muslimgauze fan hasn't heard much of Jones' work and would have trouble telling apart what they have heard from what they haven't in a blind test. Which leaves fans either endlessly recommending favourites/preferred gateways (1997's Jaal Ab Dullah still makes for a fine overview of the range and scope of Jones' work) or else on an endless treadmill of assessing new work, work that is broadly similar in sound and quality to the huge mass we already have.

Neither the new compilation Al Jar Zia Audio nor the 1993 send away EP Satyajit Eye (reissued now on CD instead of DAT with bonus tracks) really breaks that trend; presumably they're paired because they see Jones beginning to look towards India's music for inspiration. The biggest surprise on Satyajit Eye is that none of the percussion has the blown-out, staticky feel so common in Muslimgauze tracks, resulting in a gentler feeling to the music. Those broken beats surface immediately on Al Jar Zia Audio, mixing with Jones' love of dub techniques on "Come Inside My Chador" and sounding almost ready for someone to rap over top them on "Radio Sharia, Eyes As Well". If Satyajit Eye showcases Jones' more traditional, almost reverent side, Al Jar Zia Audio shows where even an act like the sui generis Muslimgauze can secretly be influential; there are echoes of the likes of Shackleton, Vatican Shadow, and Silent Servant here.

But it's hard to assess individual Muslimgauze releases outside the context of his massive oeuvre, and hard to assess that outside the ideological questions Jones' almost monomaniacally pursued project raises. To be sure, plenty of Jones' contemporaries found similarly "edgy" or "dangerous" contexts for their work, but Jones' devotion was so total and unwavering it seems like more than just a part of his art. As his obituary in the New York Times says, "those who knew him described him as a shy, mysterious man who was serious in his political beliefs and never wavered from his commitment to music." In all its maddening purity/appropriation, consistency/sloppiness, focus/scattershot rage, these two releases are just as good/interesting/pleasurable/disturbing/thought provoking as all of Bryn Jones' music. There's enough complexity to Muslimgauze that it deserves neither blind praise nor knee-jerk rejection (as tempting as Jones makes both options), but is instead worth engaging with. My own position on the man and his work continues to evolve, but the most valuable part of my own engagement with the work of Bryn Jones is that I'm always going to be at least a little bit torn.

review by Ian Mathers
PopMatters (July 24, 2013)

see also Al Jar Zia Audio, Satyajit Eye

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September 29, 2020