At one point in my life, I owned nearly three dozen Muslimgauze recordings. To the voracious collectors of music out there — those fans of Prince or Zappa or other prodigious studio rats — that probably doesn’t sound like a whole lot. However, Prince has enjoyed 25 years in the studio, and Zappa clocked 27 before his death. Bryn Jones — aka Muslimgauze — released his first cassette recording in 1982. Before he died in 1999, over 75 different titles were released under the Muslimgauze nom de guerre. And, to be honest, to the average listener, the Arabic-infused, elastic electronica he made over those 17 years was nowhere near as obviously diverse as the output of the aforementioned artists.
Yet the collection continued to grow. Why? What would make a nominally rational person shell out hundreds of dollars for high-priced import CDs and incredibly hard-to-find vinyl releases that, to most people, all sounded pretty much the same? The answer is as obtuse as it is obvious: They didn’t all sound the same.
The sonic and visual identity that Jones assumed for his Muslimgauze recordings was evocative and unsettling, and there was something incredibly bracing (if not vaguely subversive) about picking up a CD like “Hamas Arc” — with its cover art of Muslim women training at a Tehran firing range — or “Salaam Alekum,” Bastard” knowing that the man responsible for the music within was a pasty Brit with a fancy for keyboards and samplers.
Jones’ obsession with the plight of the Palestinian people completely defined his work. And rather than pick up an acoustic guitar and moan about the political ramifications of post-colonialism, he let the drones and samples and industrial buzzing do the talking for him. Taken as a body of work, Muslimgauze’s music helped recast the global Muslim/Arabic struggle in terms that were humanistic and richly historical. Setting the sound of street chants, radio broadcasts and traditional instruments onto a humming, electrified canvas, Jones brought centuries of culture crashing onto a modern battlefield, opening the eyes of his small, but devoted audience in the process.
His venom toward Israeli domination of Palestinian territories was never spelled out in lyrics, but typically through his artwork, as well as song titles like “Strap Sticks of Dynamite Around Her Body” and tiny epigrams like “dedicated to a just end.” Proving it’s possible to be pro-Arab and not anti-Jew, Jones’oeuvre was predicated on the notion that Muslim culture is vast and deep and, as such, should be afforded the respect it deserves. And every release — from the brutally visceral “Coup d’Etat” (1987) and “Fatah Guerilla” (1996) to spacious drones like the 20-minute “Drugsherpa” (1994) — drove that point home. Largely “ambient” in nature, the Muslim-gauze polemics were inherently simple, but the sound was a constantly unfolding mosaic, altering with every shift in the political landscape.
“Arabbox” was recorded in 1993, a time of severe turbulence in the Middle East and, not coincidentally, an extremely productive period for Jones. (“Hamas Arc, Betrayal, Veiled Sisters” were all released that year.) But it wasn’t released until this year, yet another era of Arabic tumult. Ironically, these pieces are focused not on Iran, Palestine, Afghani-stan, Iraq or any other newsworthy hotbed of Muslim violence. They are focused on India, a country with over 100 million Muslims who fight their own struggle for survival in the predominantly Hindu country (to wit: the blind eye turned by the conservative Hindu government toward anti-Muslim murder mobs in Gujarat). Though Jones doesn’t take the same ferocious stance against India as he does Israel (much of “Arabbox” is rich with sounds from the Hindustani classical tradition), tracks like “Mozaik of Lies” and “Ganges Swimmer” are possessed of their own fire. Other tracks — “Sadaambush” — have their own intrinsic politics that, for being 10 years old, are as prescient as pernicious.
It’s likely that the Muslimgauze discography will continue to grow. In fact, nearly 60 releases and reissues have emerged since Jones’ death. And, given that violence — physical, psychological and political — against Muslims is unlikely to abate anytime soon, this music will continue to be vital and relevant – and well worthy of in-depth, long-term listening.
First appeared Aug. 28, 2003 in Orlando Weekly.