The veiled sound of a secretive world
December 22, 2008 4:38 PM   Subscribe

Muslimgauze was the sound of an angry Middle East, a prolific source of music dark, spacious and smothering. Tension was a constant theme not only in the music but in the packaging. (For example, Betrayal shows the hands of Yassir Arafat and Yitzak Rabin, and guns, knives, and news photos of an Arab world at war were a common motif in titles and sleeve art.) However, the music wasn't the usual agitprop fare: Music meant to rile a public to a cause isn't normally pigeonholed as ambient, electronica or musique concrete. But the band, hidden from public view, was rumored to donate proceeds to Palestinian terrorists, and that they were eventually silenced by Mossad. Despite the prodigious output -- issuing almost a hundred EPs and albums between 1983 and 1998, over a hundred more since -- limited distribution and perpetual obscurity ensured the rumors were easier to find than the music. While the facts about Muslimgauze have little in common with the fictions, they are, if anything, stranger...

Muslimgauze was the nom de studio of Bryn Jones, who lived from birth to death in the same house in Manchester, England. His reclusiveness was extreme even by the standards of IDM artists, performing barely over a dozen times in sixteen years and never visiting the Middle East that fueled his music: When one of his labels offered to pay for a trip to Palestine, he declined. Obviously pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist, Jones insisted he was not antisemitic and, for that matter, identified with the plight of people in many occupied lands. Early tracks (when there was a Soviet empire) contain references to Afghanistan, and skimming the catalog will show mentions of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, the Balkans, Uzbekistan, and other points of tension between Moslems and non-Moslems, or between Moslems. Interviews indicated a perspective on the human aspects of conflicts which seemed at odds with Muslimgauze's revolutionary posture. Wit leaked around the edges of the hardass persona, such as packaging a CD between two ping-pong paddles or titling a track 'Cairopraktar'.

Jones began his recording career in 1982 as E.g. Oblique Graph. Inspired by the punk scene and DIY ethos, he released a couple cassettes of ambience and noise, occasionally with politically-themed titles. It wasn't until Israel's invasion of Lebanon that he found his idée fixe, becoming Muslimgauze in 1983 and channeling his obsession with the Arab world into his music. The intensity of his fascination seemed to fuel the intensity of his output; the official Muslimgauze catalog lists 15 titles in 1996 on vinyl, cassette, CD and even DAT, some in editions of only a couple hundred, or an edition of one. In later years, he began exploring reggae and dub in collaborations with Rootsman, and became more active in the remixing scene. According to interviews, he used tape loops but never samplers. In 1998, the peak of his career with 16 new albums and an unprecedented number of live dates (five concerts in five different countries), he was hospitalized with a blood infection and died early in 1999.

The owner of Soleilmoon, one of Muslimgauze's record labels, complained that Jones was shipping new material in such volume that he began stuffing them in a cardboard box to get them out of the way. A decade later, a steady stream of new Muslimgauze recordings help foster the fanbase and broaden interest in Jones and his work. A biography is scheduled for publication in April. Fans stay in touch on the Islamaphonia list, and rarities are appearing on the Arabbox site. His music continues to inspire other artists who use his music to score their documentary footage or create music collages of their own, ensuring that the music, and maybe the message, may wander their own ways and recombine again in new hands.
posted by ardgedee (48 comments total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
Great post.

For years, I've toyed with the idea of seriously diving into his catalog, but the sheer number of releases intimidates me. Of the few albums I do have, "Abu Nidal" and "Veiled Sisiters" are the ones I'd recommend.
posted by davebush at 4:50 PM on December 22, 2008

How was a British musician "silenced by the Mossad."

I mean, those guys are seriously hardcore, but did they go to Manchester and rough him up?
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:52 PM on December 22, 2008

as i recall, it took awhile for the details of his death to circulate which in combination with the subject matter is probably the origin of the "silenced by mossad" line.
posted by feloniousmonk at 4:58 PM on December 22, 2008

Observe With Sadiq Bey gets some pretty heavy play in my little sansa player.
posted by NoMich at 5:00 PM on December 22, 2008

4cm: There's a lot of paranoia cause the man died of a fungal blood infection. It's a pretty crazy way for anyone to go out.
posted by boo_radley at 5:07 PM on December 22, 2008

OK, and I'm often a critic of Israel. But "silenced by the Mossad" on the basis of no evidence whatsoever seems like it crosses a line into making shit -- incendiary shit -- up.

I am amused to find myself defending the Mossad, but conspiracy theories end up legitimizing their targets, you know. I'm pretty sure they don't waste bullets or strange fungal infections on obscure British electronica musicians, no matter how radical they may seem to their 36 fans.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:12 PM on December 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

The always wicked Mutant Sounds blog just posted E.g. Oblique Graph's Inhalt cassette, from 1983.
posted by stinkycheese at 5:18 PM on December 22, 2008

Not to lessen the artist, single-copy releases aren't terribly rare amongst prolific avant-garde sort of producers. Even amongst some more "accessible" folks there are extreme rarities.

The New York Times has a bit on his death (and life). Thanks for this, ardgedee - I've known the artist name for a while, though I couldn't tell you much of the work (or who was behind the name Muslimgauze).
posted by filthy light thief at 5:21 PM on December 22, 2008

Wiki: Examinations of Muslimgauze references in dedications, album, and track titles...reveals Jones had sophisticated knowledge of what occurred in conflict regions. Jones acquired this knowledge through local library research which included available books and periodicals.

Hurray for public libraries!
posted by stinkycheese at 5:23 PM on December 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

... and here's the Discogs discography, with additional info on the release of his music on compilations, remixing others, and bootleg material.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:25 PM on December 22, 2008

Thanks for this post.

When I first heard Muslimgauze it rocked my world: before everybody and their mother was listening to the Passion soundtrack, it was one of the few places you could hear someone experimenting with Middle Eastern rhythms. Over the year I've acquired a bunch more of his/their stuff; its maddeningly uneven. Zul'm has bits of greatness (Indian Summer of Benazir Bhotto) and quite a bit of filler. Coup d'Etat seems to be pretty much one primarily-programmed rhythm repeated over and over with very little change. Salaam Alekum, Bastard is pretty great.
posted by googly at 5:30 PM on December 22, 2008

I have five or six of his less obscure titles (I forget which and don't have the info on hand) and knew a lot of the back story here, but this is a really good post. The sort of thing MeFi is and should be good for. As an obscure bit of marginalia, I have somewhere around a thousand albums in various genres, produced and mastered across the CD era and every one of his CDs is mastered louder than anyone else's. I'd turn it up to 2 and it sounded like it was turned up to 10.
posted by el_lupino at 5:40 PM on December 22, 2008

Good post. I was introduced to Muslimgauze by the good people at Oink.
posted by paisley henosis at 5:55 PM on December 22, 2008

Good post. You've caused me to pull out Drugsherpa.
posted by Leon at 6:05 PM on December 22, 2008

I heard something by him and it seemed interesting, so I bought a few things. But ultimately, there wasn't much there to hold my interest for long - and I'm a pretty big fan of all sorts of odd stuff musically, plus I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of Middle Eastern / Islamic musics at a young age, and I liked them. (I've got Turkish relatives and Turkey was a popular place for holidays and whatnot for Bosnians. Also, there's a weird strain of Islam in Bosnia which emphasizes music, plus loads of Sufi music. And many of my relatives who were professional engineers spent years working in places like Iraq. Music came to me from all these sources.) I've long wondered at the lack of Islamic motifs in Western underground music - there are certainly many things worth pillaging, so Muslimgauze seemed worth investigating.

Part of the problem with Muslimgauze is pointed out above - an almost masturbatory approach to creating music at a prodigious rate, with scant regard to editing, song-writing or even crafting pieces into more pleasing / concise / hypnotic or powerful works. (Take your pick of those depending on your aesthetic sense.) I once also tried to piece together what the overriding idea or ideas were behind all those stuff. One could detect a generally pro-Islamic / anti-Israeli stance, I suppose . . . but for the most part, I began to realize that Jones wasn't saying anything with any degree of deep thought or consistency (contrary to what Wikipedia may say.) There was just a lot of interesting graphics, provocative imagery and titles, some cool "sounds" . . . but in the long run, it seems like when Jones did hit a good idea, it was something like luck more than artistry as such.

I hear a lot more Middle Eastern / Islamic influence in things now, which is cool. But still, it doesn't seem like people in the West do much with it.

Worth checking out:

Badawi - very similar to some aspects of Muslimgauze, but a bit more solid.

Holger Czukay's "Persian Love." It's just one song, built around a vocal from an Iranian singer captured on shortwave radio, but it's sublime. Holger was in Can and did other stuff like this; I especially enjoy "Boat-Woman-Song," which is similarly built around a vocal sample, this time of a Folkways recording of a female villager in Viet Nam - it's harrowing.

"Choubi Choubi! Folk And Pop Songs From Iraq" - a compilation CD of tunes recorded here, there and everywhere and often uncredited. Amazing.

Despite not being much of a Muslimgauze fan myself, I say this was a truly excellent post.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:26 PM on December 22, 2008 [14 favorites]

This is really fantastic. I've always loved the music of Muslimgauze but never had the inclination to research further. Thanks again for an AWESOME post.
posted by arimathea at 6:38 PM on December 22, 2008

The place I (still!) buy cds from has a few dozen Muslimgause albums now, and I'm sure I've seen catalog updates about another 50 over the years.

That's almost certainly one of the reasons I've avoided it! I have some unhealthy collector/completist instincts that are basically incompatible with this guy's release schedule.
posted by aubilenon at 6:38 PM on December 22, 2008

And how does one avoid a fungal blood infection . . . because I sure would enjoy not getting a fungal blood infection.

Does one perhaps get they fool self a blood mold by reading too many dubiously cared for old library documents and living in the same old house for 40 years?
posted by dgaicun at 6:46 PM on December 22, 2008

Nice summary. I hadn't heard the cardboard box anecdote, but that sounds accurate. I was thoroughly engrossed with his music years ago, but I found his catalogue too overwhelming. I focused on his more mainstream ambient music, and that remains in my playlist today. Amazing, those who try to collect the entirety of Muslimgauze, FAX records, and other bottomless catalogues...
posted by aletheia at 6:56 PM on December 22, 2008

> But "silenced by the Mossad" on the basis of no evidence whatsoever...

I almost edited that line out before posting, but it was definitely a rumor in circulation. And as far as I'm concerned, only a rumor. Muslimgauze was sufficiently obscure that many people really thought it was an individual or collective located in the Middle East. Many people first heard Muslimgauze over college (or pirate) radio or by Nth-generation cassette dub, a great way to pass along music and a poor way to retain documentation. Pre-internet, there was no good source of information to fall back on unless you were sufficiently involved in the music scene to know which people to talk to or which zines to refer to.
posted by ardgedee at 6:56 PM on December 22, 2008

adgedee, it was only clear to me on the second reading that you were saying "it was rumored that they were silenced by the Mossad". I suspect others have misread you as well.
posted by flaterik at 7:13 PM on December 22, 2008

I still have the "Buddhist on Fire" LP on vinyl, and it's still as good as anything being produced today in the similar genre of ambient/beat music. If anyone wants a copy (I can't recommend it enough), there are a few links floating around out there that have it. If the link goes dead and you want a copy of my rip of the LP, email me. Needless to say, great post.
posted by Zack_Replica at 7:19 PM on December 22, 2008

the muslimgauze sonography has always been a favorite of mine, it's a listing of the titles of every song - I've always enjoyed his poetry in titling pieces. Tumeric sahara gaze, Girl who lived inside a sitar, Sari of Acidic Colours, etc. Azad, Alms for Iraq, and Lo-fi India Abuse are my favorite albums lately.
posted by thylacine at 7:23 PM on December 22, 2008

fantastic post, thanks.

I second DX's recommendation of Badawi. I used to pop Soldier of Midian in the stereo whilst driving around the base in Baghdad at night. Made for a welcome and spooky break from Arabic pop radio and AFN.
posted by xthlc at 8:50 PM on December 22, 2008

dgaicun: And how does one avoid a fungal blood infection . . . because I sure would enjoy not getting a fungal blood infection.

They're rather uncommon in healthy adults with functioning immune systems. I wonder if he was immunocompromised or of weak health due to some other cause.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:11 PM on December 22, 2008

Amazing post. Haven't listened to Muslimgauze since my days on college radio in the early '90s, but I definitely remember playing those records.
posted by shoepal at 9:24 PM on December 22, 2008

I heart Muslimgauze.
posted by Jairus at 9:29 PM on December 22, 2008

I swear that I don't have any vested interest in pointing this out, but eMusic is probably the cheapest legit way to check out both Badawi and Muslimgauze. waits for the pitchforks and torches ...
posted by dylanjames at 9:50 PM on December 22, 2008

I'm kind of surprised that this essay by Jace Clayton (DJ /Rupture) from Bidoun last year hasn't been mentioned here - it's far and away the most perceptive thing I've ever read about his music & the packaging of it.
posted by with hidden noise at 9:56 PM on December 22, 2008

...ensuring that the music, and maybe the message, may wander their own ways and recombine again in new hands.

such as yours
posted by semmi at 10:24 PM on December 22, 2008

Thank you very much.
posted by zouhair at 11:07 PM on December 22, 2008

And how does one avoid a fungal blood infection

Avoid DIY intravenous injection and be scrupulous about your dental hygiene.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:09 PM on December 22, 2008

I would highly recommend Dome of the Rock, one of my fave Muslimgauze albums, which was released posthumously in 2003. It features some really hypnotic rhythms amid an ambience of what I can only poorly describe as "stoned on a middle eastern street".
posted by Onanist at 3:03 AM on December 23, 2008

weak health due to some other cause.

Not that it matters, but do the math on the odds a fay British dance musician pretending to be an Arab would acquire a strange and fatal fungal infection in any but the most obvious way that this happens in the first world. Sounds like a euphemism to me.

Ah, and now we know how the Mossad offed Arafat. Surely you've heard *those* rumors.

Heck, maybe Arafat and Muslimgauze were secret lovers.

I love rumors. You can say anything and say "it is rumored that." And then it becomes a debatable possibility.

(But the idea that the Mossad would take down a non-Arab UK citizen of no real political consequence who had never been to the Middle East, thus risking an international incident that would cost them the UK and likely the EU as an ally, and probably lose them a great deal of US and European military aid, is just absurd on its face. Agreed? Mossad is smarter than that.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:02 AM on December 23, 2008

posted by fourcheesemac at 4:09 AM on December 23, 2008

(All that said, by the way, this is a cool post. I had heard of this dude, but never listened.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:11 AM on December 23, 2008

Also, I'd be curious how Muslimgauze would handle the prohibition on secular music (and certainly on dancing to it!) in certain fundamentalist Muslim societies and sects. The Taliban would have no use for him or his music, in fact. They banned all such stuff and enforced the ban brutally. His music would almost certainly be technically banned in Iran today, and effectively in the Gulf states for most residents.

Read Jon Baily's striking 2001 report on the Taliban's campaign against music and musician at here.

And here's the basis for the prohibition, from the Holy Koran.

Surah 26:
Shall I tell you on whom Satan descend?
They descend on every lying, wicked person:
They impart what they have heard —but most of them are liars.
It is the poets whom the erring follow:
Seest thou not how they rove distraught in every valley?
And that they say that which they do not?
Save those who believe and do good works, and oft remember God;
And who defend themselves when unjustly treated. But they who treat them unjustly shall find out what a lot awaiteth them.

(My own view is that the more interesting historical context for muslimgauze, here, is of British aesthetic orientalism, not of Muslim resistance to European domination. Is it still "orientalism" when you embrace its radical rather than statist or high cultural elements? I think so.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:36 AM on December 23, 2008

There are other angry sounds popular in the middle east.
posted by jonmc at 6:05 AM on December 23, 2008

fourcheesemac: Islam is not of a piece, no moreso than Christianity. Whipping out a chunk of the Qu'ran without any context, esp. when there are many rulings on the role of music in Islamic life -- for one ancient one that is still relevant in many circles, look up
Ihya ul um-id-din (The Book of Worldly Usages) by Ghazzali.
Poetry and Music have been, and continue to be, at the core of many Muslim's lives and worship, even to the extent of the Sufis. Tying Bryn's work to not only Talibanistic (and, in my opinion, highly biased and false) interpretations of Islam, not to mention what I think is a misunderstanding of the core of Orientalism as explicated by Edward Said and others, misses the point of his work, as well as others. IT is not only possible, but to be encouraged, when someone looks at any region and adapts the work, so long as it's clear it's an adaptation -- much of the problem with Orentalism, historically, is that it put a veil of Authoritativeness over the realities of the region and it's people, and diminish their lives and struggles. This is something Bryn's work does not claim.
posted by Asim at 6:31 AM on December 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Fantastic post. An intriguing, problematic dude who made (at times) intriguing, problematic music.
posted by everichon at 6:43 AM on December 23, 2008

Wild. I had no idea the man was dead. Like an industrial/ambient Tupac Shakur...
posted by The Ardship of Cambry at 7:59 AM on December 23, 2008

I love rumors. You can say anything and say "it is rumored that." And then it becomes a debatable possibility.

(But the idea that the Mossad would take down a non-Arab UK citizen of no real political consequence who had never been to the Middle East, thus risking an international incident that would cost them the UK and likely the EU as an ally, and probably lose them a great deal of US and European military aid, is just absurd on its face. Agreed? Mossad is smarter than that.)

You're getting a bit worked up about a tangential aside. It's no different than the rumors about the CIA killing Kennedy (or maybe more accurately, Paul from "The Wonder Years" being Marylin Manson). You just shrug, relegate it to the "obvious rumor" bin, and move along. No need to burst a blood vessel.
posted by Amanojaku at 8:24 AM on December 23, 2008

I've collected some 20-odd Muslimgauze recordings over the last ten years or so - the most approachable selections I've found would be either "Speaking With Hamas" or the Muslimgauze/Systemwide/Sound Secretion "Classics Selection"... two widely varied angles on Bryn's compositional approaches.

Per Wiki: "...despite a few collaborations, Jones didn't trust anyone when it came to remixing his music. Instead, he would take pieces of music that were sent to him and remix them to his own liking."

One of the most amusing anecdotes, per the "vs. Bass Communion" EP as I recall, was about this prolific output right around the time that other artists in the avant-dub type scene started to take notice of Muslimgauze and start trying to collaborate. Steven Williams (of BC) had desired to work with Bryn and sent him some tracks of his own, as well as some Muslimgauze tracks that Williams had reworked. A short while later he received a shipment back, of his own tracks and remixes, further remixed by Bryn, without any other notes or communication. This was a bit perplexing, and so he picked out a few of the cuts he would like to do further work with and sent them back to Bryn, along with some comments, requests for collaboration, etc. Once again, a short while later he received the re-remixed tracks back, FURTHER remixed, with little to no explanation. It was only after some communication with MG's distributor at the time (Soleilmoon, I believe) that arrangements were made for an actual collaborative release, as opposed to continuing the chain of Bryn's obsessive-compulsive remix urges by mail.

Please note that these recollections are based on something I recall reading 10 or so years ago, and may be warped or completely fabricated by the passing of time.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:33 AM on December 23, 2008

And just in case I didn't provide enough commas in the prior comment - ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,. Add to taste.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:35 AM on December 23, 2008

Asim, I didn't say it was "of a piece." In fact, I listed specific regimes. I quoted Surah 26, cited Jon Bailey, but spared y'all a lecture on Suifism, the ghazal, Arabic art music, and Koranic recitation.

I could have given the lecture. In detai. I've taught numerous courses on music in the Islamic world.

Don't lecture me, please. And don't generalize about other people's posts when they were specific.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:28 PM on December 23, 2008

(Nor did I "tie Muslimgauze to the Taliban, or however you put it. I wondered what the dude would have said if asked about the Muslim societies in which his kind of music would be banned by the state, and I suggested his invocation of Islam when he is neither Muslim, nor ever even visited an Islamic nation, is suggestive of a long history of Orientalism in British music, to which your comments do not speak. I don't think you've read your Said, either.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:32 PM on December 23, 2008

you -- uh -- you ok there, 4cm? this seems to have gotten you pretty riled.
posted by boo_radley at 11:47 PM on December 23, 2008

And how does one avoid a fungal blood infection ... be scrupulous about your dental hygiene.

(from that link:)

"Common activities like brushing your teeth or chewing your food can sometimes allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream."
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:03 PM on December 25, 2008

« Older Give It The Ol' Goat Gland Job.   |   In order to be an immaculate member of a flock of... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments