[24 July 2013]
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 (discogs.com 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, channeled, 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 sendaway 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.