Some months ago I was approached by a Polish magazine, Glissando to write a piece on the performativity of Muslimgauze. I had to look up what “performativity” meant, but once I did the rest fell into place. I am quite fond of Polish culture. Krystoff Kieslowski is perhaps my favorite film director while Stanislav Lem is one of my favorite science fiction writers. It is immenesely cool to be approached by the Poles to write something and then be translated! I hope there will be more. As for The Book, well, let’s say there is a bit of a developmental roadblock at the moment. I am sure this will not be the last one. It was suggested The Book may not be out this year for reasons apparently out of the publisher’s control. Well, Bryn’s birthday is coming up (very) soon so I may post some more excerpts from the book! Meanwhile, here is the English version of the Glissando piece.
Performativity of Muslimgauze, issue 21 Glissando
Glissando Magazine approached me to write of Bryn Jones aka Muslimgauze. During an editorial discussion the word ‘performativity’ surfaced, and I was asked to elaborate on how it related to Muslimgauze. An unknown word to me at the time, I soon found ‘performativity’ is not a word deciphered through consultation of a dictionary. Rather, it is an interdisciplinary term that involves entire schools of thought. ‘Performativity’ starts in linguistics and expands into politics, gender studies, and economics, for starters. I am sceptical of the use of academic jargon in music journalism. It can be frustrating to re-read sentences several times over in an attempt to grasp its meaning while trying to learn about a favourite artist or band. The article becomes a building of occasional locked doors, and keys of understanding not so simple and straightforward.
However, I also enjoy a challenge. What if in an article only one academic need be learned, however rudimentarily it is described? Further, what if this word, once deciphered, enables us a deeper appreciation of the topic at hand. Musician, Terre Thaemlitz, known for extensive use of academic language in his album liner notes says, “It’s not ‘jargon’ if it’s a practical word with applicable meaning. People in general are really instilled with anti-intellectualism (as a kind of anti-aristocratic class gesture) so it’s really good to snap out of anti-intellectualism and realize a lot of what gets dismissed as ‘jargon’ is actually fine-tuned language (like trigonometry or calculus). The problem, of course, is that it gets wielded poorly (usually because editors insist on dumbing things down). So for me something usually only sounds like “jargon” when language is not allowed to function in a rich capacity.”
Encouraged, I visited my local reference library with the desire to turn a bourgeois word into something to empower readers. According to Performativity (Loxley, James. Performativity. New York: Routledge, 2007), the word can be attributed to James Langshaw Austin who gave a series of what became influential lectures on ‘Words and Deeds’ at Oxford University during the 1950′s. ‘Performativity’ is linked to speech and examples of performative statements include the exchange of marriage vows, to bequeath property in a will, or when a police officer makes an arrest. States Austin, “In these examples it seems clear that to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing: it is to do it.” (pg.8)
“To say is to do”, or, put another way, “words as actions” appear at the heart of performativity. Since Austin’s lectures, other thinkers such as Judith Butler appropriated the term for gender studies to in turn coin phrases such as ‘gender performativity’. For the purpose of this piece, I opt for a narrower definition as per Austin to focus on a facet of Bryn Jones as Muslimgauze.
Bryn Jones was a prolific Manchester, England-based musician active from years 1982 until his premature passing at the cusp of age 38 in January, 1999. Jones began recording as E.g. Oblique Graph abstract electronic music, but changed his moniker as Muslimgauze in 1983 along with emphasis on rhythm and ethnic samples. The first Muslimgauze album is Hammer and Sickle (Hessian, 1983) and more than musical expression, each subsequent album were political statements in and of themselves. However, unlike other political artists such as Public Enemy, Jones eschewed lyrics in favor of instrumental landscapes wherein the only vocals used were from radio and television newscasts, audio field recordings, and ethnic music recordings. In the summer of 1994 edition of Industrial Nation, Jones stated, “There are no vocals for two reasons: One is a lot of the music is ruined by bad lyrics badly sung… Most people in today’s music cannot sing. Also, it can lead to preaching. Muslimgauze have very strong political beliefs, but you can listen to a track without having opinions pushed down your throat. Second is that I like to do everything and I can’t sing, so I don’t.” Jones, however, did hope listeners would be curious enough about the album and track titles, dedications in liner notes, and the music itself to look up the facts behind it.
As for the music itself, one could expect, with all these heavy political themes, the music itself to be harsh and confrontational. Paradoxically, this is not always the case. With a catalogue of some 200+ albums, music that was angry and confrontational would quickly grow tiresome. While there are angry or aggressive sounding albums, such emotional overtones are limited to few albums, or tracks on albums that also express other emotions as well. Some Muslimgauze albums are uplifting, inspire dance movements or bobbing one’s head. So albums exude a sense of tension whereas other inspire cinematic mind trips where whole ranges of emotions occur, as do most good films. Part of what makes Muslimgauze music attractive, even among the politically agnostic listeners, are the sounds, textures, rhythms, complex edits, and bewildering array of accomplished bass lines just to skim the surface. Muslimgauze music encompasses numerous albeit mostly Western urban genres, such as ambient, breakbeat, IDM, Industrial, Dub, Dancehall reggae, to name a few, that are in turn blended with ethno music styles like East Inidian bhangra, Mid-Eastern Raqisat, or traditional North African. The genres change from album to album, and sometimes from track-to-track the way a kaleidoscope changes shapes and colours. Jones also made albums with sounds and textures that confound even the more seasoned studio wizards. Geert-Jan Hobijn, who owns the Staalplaat label that releases and distributes international avante-talents says of Muslimgauze music and the use of cleverly edited ethno and field sounds, “You cannot chop up tradition that easily, but he (Jones) was capable of doing that. His sounds give the impression it’s loosely made, he distorts sounds, but it is someone in control to an extent that’s very rare. It’s like in martial arts, where someone’s swinging a knife dangerously, but he knows to a millimetre what he is doing. It’s just brilliant. He had this collage technique―in one instance he had the reloading of a gun, and it was really well used; or giggling women, or crying women or the clapping of hands, it was edited so beautifully. All these layers have different stories. Through the whole CD you hear very deep stories; someone breathing, walking, and only if you listen carefully you hear that. These fine details, and like I said, the clapping of the hands and the loading, crying… strong images, simple, basic. You could also hear he’d been out listening to things. He’d been tapping into things, but we don’t know where, how or when. The dub, the breakbeat, all these elements he used he must have listened to. He wasn’t disconnected, you could hear it.”
To listen to a Muslimgauze album is to experience a range of sounds unlikely to be reproduced, that draws the listener in the way a venus fly trap clamps down on its prey. Muslimgauze would not attract the cult following on politics alone, Jones also knew his way around his music making gear and studios. The music remains timeless, with posthumous albums still slated for release that sound as fresh now as during Jones’ lifetime.
There is a story of a Buddhist monk who fashioned every piece of stone that passed his hands into images of the Buddha. Over the course of his lifetime, landscapes became littered with stone chip Buddhas. Similarly, Jones fashioned with his musical instruments, music making gear and libraries of pre-recorded sounds, ways to express musical dissent. This dissent did not waver, only intensified and grew in fervency as his musical output bloomed, darkly goaded by compounding Muslim-world tragedies. Jones claimed that Muslimgauze music was always informed and triggered by political facts.
Bryn Jones’ speech is recorded in three main formats; letters, interviews, and the actual Muslimgauze recordings. It is the latter that epitomizes Jones’ performative expressions, through album and track title and the music itself. Like the monk who littered landscapes with stone chip Buddhas, so Jones left behind a staggering catalogue that speaks out against injustice nowhere near resolution.
It is beyond the scope of this piece to cover all references and performative expressions in Muslimgauze. Instead, specific examples are examined such as the beginnings of Muslimgauze, as well as Jones’ support for Iranian and Palestinian resistance movements.
Though Jones often claimed Muslimgauze was born from Israel’s invasion of Southern Lebanon in 1982, early music by Bryn Jones in fact references Soviet power concerns. Starting out with his first known musical project, E.g Oblique Graph, Jones first made known political references in track titles such as “Murders linked to Gaulist Cliques” from Extended Play (Kinematograph, 1982), “Human Rights” off of Piano Room (Kinematograph, 1982) and “Castro Regime” from Triptych (Recloose, 1982). The first Islamic reference was in the final E.g Oblique Graph release, Inhalt (Kinematorgraph, 1983), “Islamic Koran in Camera Dome”, while the first Muslimgauze album was Hammer & Sickle (Hessian, 1983). Jones’ concerns first surfaced through broad-references-as-touchstones.
Hailing from the suburbs of Manchester, during his youth, Jones was known by his peers to be a small ‘c’ conservative who voiced support for Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. As the 80′s was the apex of the cold war, Jones was keenly anti-communist. Consequently, this put him at odds with his experimental music contemporaries who tended to be anarchist or bedroom Marxists. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that began on December of 1979 was, by the first Muslimgauze album, fully under way, while America and its allies supplied Afghan rebels with weapons and technical assistance in a proxy war. When Jones was interviewed in 1984 by the Elephant Weekly Fanzine where he was asked about the future of the newly minted Muslimgauze, “Ideas for the future are political, (including) freedom to Afghanistan from Soviet oppression; unity of the two German lands, the destruction of the Berlin wall, and freedom to Poland and all lands occupied by Russia, a total return to democracy”. To that end, Jones made a track reference “Under the Hand of Jaruzelksi” on Hunting Out With An Aerial Eye (Limited Editions, 1984), also the track “Soviet Occupied Territories” from Buddhist on Fire (Recloose, 1984) released later that year.
By the early-to-mid-eighties, Jones’ knowledge on colonialism grew to include American and British attempts at foreign control and dominance, which included the Iran/Iraq war (then referred to as the Gulf War) that lasted from 1980 to 1988. In this conflict, Jones sided with Iran. Images of the Ayatollah Khomeini first appeared on an insert for Blinded Horses (Limited, 1985), then another in Flajelata (Limited, 1986) and then as an album cover Hajj (Limited, 1986). The Gulf War was further referenced in a three part track that spanned the entire side of an album on Abu Nidal (1987) and an album, Iran (Staalplaat, 1988). According to a 1995 Eskhatos Magazine interview, Jones stated, “I just hope that one day it (Iran) will take over Iraq and have more power. I support Iran, so when he (Saddam Hussein) attacked Iran (the September 1980 invasion) I was hoping he would get beat but the West gave him arms so that he could beat Iran which he didn’t do, and he came back to haunt them.” Jones further mentioned his support for Iran in other interviews and personal correspondences. For those unaware of the region’s history, the stance seems shocking. Western media tends to display Iran as a hostile, aggressive state with little regard for the sanctity of diplomatic protocol or even human life. To substantiate the point, we are oft-reminded of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 when Iranian university students, with assistance from the Iranian revolutionary guard, stormed the US embassy and held Americans hostage for 444 days.
However, if we pull back the lens of history, we learn that Iran was under British influence and control, especially as petrol resources grew increasingly important in the struggle for geo-political dominance. When democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized Iran’s oil resources in 1951, Britain and the USA arranged for his overthrow while re-enforcing rule of the pro-Western, Emperor of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1953. Iranian popular discord simmered under Pahlavi’s rule, who in the face of protests, resorted to military crackdowns, torture and extra-judicial executions. Not only were Western countries aware of this, but encouraged and helped facilitate suppression of the popular will. When Iranian popular resistance verged on the point of civil war between the regime security apparatus on one hand and the masses on the other, Reza Pahlavi stepped down and ceded power to Ayatollah Khomeini in what became the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. Displaced, the Shah relocated to various countries until he settled in the US for treatment of lymphoma. Iranians interpreted the relocation to the US as further plotting to re-install a Western-backed regime and continued foreign control, hence the hostage crisis. By way of response, America and other Western states supported Iraq’s invasion and subsequent war with Iran by providing technical and material assistance, including the use of chemical weapons against the Iranian populace. Jones was aware of Iran’s troubled, colonialist riddled history and sided with Iranians.
The most controversial aspect of Muslimgauze, however, is Bryn Jones’ uncompromising anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian stance. References of this first surfaced on the cover of Blinded Horses (Limited, 1985), which has a photo of Yasser Arafat holding his two fingers up in a ‘V for victory’ sign and further has a track titled, “Palestine”. On the subsequent Flajelata (Limited, 1986) Jones partially dedicated the album to Occupied Palestine, and then fully to Yasser Arafat P.L.O.” on Hajj. The on-going and ever-worsening Occupied-Palestine crisis gradually became a focal point with Abu Nidal (Limited Editions, 1987) a Palestinian resistance fighter and mercenary. Following that The Rape of Palestine (Limited, 1988) inscribed, “This record is dedicated to the victims of Israeli brutality in occupied West Bank and Gaza.” The Rape of Palestine was Jones’ last self-released album and thereafter the labels took care of album art work. Beyond dedications and track titles, Jones used albums to respond to policies on occupied Palestine such as Betrayal (Staalplaat, 1993) which was about the Oslo Accords, one the most detrimental agreements to the Palestinian cause. The cover of Betrayal featured a close-up of Israeli Prime Minister, Yithak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands and was “Dedicated to a United Arab Response”.
In Western society, criticism of Israel and challenges against its right to exist is often met with the charge of ‘anti-Semitism’. According to 2001 edition of The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, a Semite is a “member of an ancient group of people including the Hebrews, Arabs, Phoenicians, Assyrians, etc..” while the Oxford Dictionary, (Oxford University Press, New York, 2010) a Semite is “a member of the people who speak or spoke a Semetic language including, in particular, the Jews and Arabs.”. Hence the charge of ‘anti-Semete’ in the context of Israel/Palestine conflict is not applicable. A clearer term to apply might be anti-Jewish, since Israel is a state where Jews have citizenship while Palestinians and all other peoples, even if regional lineage dates back centuries, have resident alien status. According to those who knew Bryn Jones personally, when asked if Jones ever made or intimated anti-Jewish sentiments, the answer is an unequivocal “no”. This leads us to make another distinction, that between Jews and Israelis.
After World War II, in the wake of the Jewish holocaust, the need for a Jewish homeland was understandably more pronounced. The way the Jewish homeland was founded, remains questionable. Jewish settlers in Palestine forcibly expelled Palestinians at bomb and gunpoint in 1948 and claimed the land, in what Israelis subsequently referred to as the ‘War of Independence’. Millions of Palestinians were exiled and displaced in an ongoing refugee crisis, while the remaining were annexed under an apartheid-like arrangement. Despite regional Pan-Arab (Arab states in the region) resistance, Jewish settlers prevailed, and the State of Israel was formed and officially recognized by the UN in 1949. Several wars and skirmishes occurred, as both exiled Palestinians and Pan-Arab states tried to reclaim parts of Palestine. In 1967, Israel conquered the regions of Sinai and Gaza, which the UN labelled as ‘Occupied Territories’ in resolutions 252 and 446. Struggles for land claims between Pan-Arab states and Israel continue, while the latter has both regional military superiority, and is currently the sole nuclear-capable state in the Middle East.
The majority of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are refugees from Palestine, now called Israel. Consequently, populations in Gaza and the West Bank swelled many times over. Tiny slivers of remaining Palestinian land were held by the Egyptian army after Israel was formed, until that too was lost to Israeli forces in the 1967 war. Remaining Palestinians were fenced-in and used as cheap pools of labour for Israel to draw from. Palestinian funds accumulated for pensions and civil infrastructure were seized by Israel. Palestinians under Israeli control were forbidden to elect their own representatives, organize unions, or exercise any form of official autonomy. Schools, homes, hospitals, roads, or even the planting of a tree must be done with Israeli permission. Meanwhile, Palestinians are subject to constant policing, both extra-judicial and mass executions, over-taxation, and denied upgrade of infrastructure, thus maintaining slum conditions. With the natural growth of the Palestinian population, ‘illegal’ homes and expansions were built, only to have Israeli authorities raze and confiscate the land for Israeli settler use. Gaza and the West bank were cut off from each other, with further plots carved up for exclusive Israeli use while Israeli-only highways made patch-work of the land. Moreover, Israel ensured that Palestinians were also fenced-in along the Egyptian side of the Gaza border so that they could not access further supplies or generate a sustainable economy. Most goods had to be imported from Israel and were heavily levied, but no tax funds went to improving infrastructure for Palestinians. Rather tax revenue was used to pay for violent suppression of the Palestinian populace by the IDF. Adding to that, scarce resources plague the growing population while the jobless rate is high, even among university educated.
As Jones read and learned of this on-going injustice in exhaustively documented Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians by professor Noam Chomsky, and Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon by Robert Fisk, as well as countless reports by Amnesty International, his outrage grew. Stated Jones on the notes of Maroon (Staalplaat, 1995) “Muslimgauze will never condemn any act of direct action, The PLO or Hamas feels is necessary to free all occupied territories. Living in a democracy and able to vote, you cannot judge those unable to do so. When you cannot alter a situation by the vote, an occupation has to be ended by any means, those being killed in their own land, feel necessary. Imagine you are a Palestinian, marooned in Gaza, a prisoner in your own land, no vote, A future? Israel feeding and drinking off your land, what is your answer?”
It is fact that virus’ contain their own cure, including the disease of colonialism which continues to be at the heart of Muslim-world conflicts. That there are subjects of Her Majesty’s realm like Bryn Jones who object to the ill-gotten manner of Britain’s wealth, and created a musical culture around it, could be the start of something positive. Though Jones is long dead, Muslimgauze music continues to make performative statements from beyond the grave.
I recall being asked to review a Muslimgauze disc for on-line magazine, Dusted, and was explicitly informed by the editors to abstain from politics. The disc in question was the Muslimgauze/Rootsman collaboration, Al Aqsa Intifada. I had to laugh at the restriction, as if the name Muslimgauze was not a political statement in itself.