by Ibrahim Khider
The late Bryn Jones, best known for his Muslimgauze project, released music under his controversial moniker since 1983, and continues to do so, long after his untimely death in 1999: a back-catalogue of never-before heard material is still slated for release as of this writing.
Muslimgauze was best known for pro-Muslim CD covers, liner notes, song titles, a staggering number of releases, and ethnic-themed music married to innovative western styles. For many, Muslimgauze music ended at the packaging, as his CD covers sometimes depicted the more dramatic elements of the Muslim world. Cases in point are albums like Salaam Alekum, Bastard which depicts a groups of hooded men with a copy of the Quran in one hand and knives in the other; Betrayal features a photo of the late Yasser Arafat shaking hands with Yitzhak Rabin the album title squarely in the middle; and Hamas Arc, which features Muslim women engaged in target practice with hand guns.
Politics and music were inextricably linked for Bryn, and unless one had an in-depth knowledge of the conflicts throughout the Muslim world – especially between Israel and Palestine – Bryn was likely to alienate. Those curious enough to look beyond the record sleeves would encounter beautifully haunting instrumental music; emotionally rich, variedly exotic and entirely unique.
Bryn Jones was born to a Christian middle class family in Manchester, in 1961n and as surviving Mancunian relatives and acquaintances reveal, he had no Muslim or Arab relatives. Nor had Bryn ever subscribed to the Islamic faith at any point in his life. Even more interestingly, Bryn had never been anywhere in the Middle East, though he was offered an all expenses paid trip to Palestine by one of his former labels, Extreme records. Bryn turned down this opportunity because he refused to set foot on occupied lands.
By all accounts, Bryn had a normal upbringing in Manchester, going to high school then college in the late '70s and studying graphic design. Of course, around this time the Punk and New Wave movements swept through the UK, influencing Bryn; the D.I.Y. ethos of Punk inspired him to embark on his own music in 1982 as E.G. Oblique Graph, on the Kinematograph label, then later, Recloose. It was during these first forays, and thanks to poor sales and show attendance, that Bryn lost all respect for the music industry, and any hope of achieving some measure of fame. He believed he would be condemned to obscurity, but this did not dissuade him.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, opening another tumultuous chapter in the conflict-ridden Middle East. What this had to do with an obscure Mancunian musician several thousand kilometers away remains a mystery, but this particular so deeply affected Bryn that he began to research injustices throughout the Muslim world. On his 1983 E.G. Oblique Graph album, Inhalt, Bryn's first reference to Islam cropped up in a track called "Islamic Koran in Camera Dome." Subsequent research through news on Muslim struggles informed another album called Kabul.
Kabul was the first seepage through Bryn's crumbling floodgate, with a track called "Muslin Gauze Muslim Prayer." A play on the wording of this track became the nom de plume for his 1983 Muslimgauze album, Opaques. All subsequent Muslimgauze records were dedicated to oppressed peoples, usually Muslims in general and/or the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
In the face of nearly 200 albums, it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss an individual work, but it is possible to highlight some generalities. For instance, most Muslimgauze music is percussive, consisting of drum kits, drum machines, ethnic percussion and even pots and pans. On more ambient pieces, rhythmic elements exist as loops or sections manifested through Bryn's studio editing effects and treatments, where he rhythmically used faders and filters on field recordings, to achieve not only a psychedelic listening experience, but to instill a living pulse.
Tempering these rhythms were timely trends Bryn would extrapolate from, such as dub, ambient, industrial, hip hop, techno, drum 'n' bass, dance hall reggae and even IDM. These genres were used individually or in combination as a way to accentuate his adventurous sound and signature ethnic samples. Bryn often claimed in interviews that he did not listen to the music of his contemporaries, rather music from regions like the Middle East, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and North Africa. However, based on timely stylizations of Muslimgauze music, this is not entirely true. Likelier Bryn meant he did not listen to his pop music contemporaries, Manchester being ground zero for some of the world's most renowned pop music. This sort of pop music was often tedious for Bryn, who had the same disdain for a formulaic musical structure as pop enthusiasts would have for his music.
In fact, Bryn not only listened to music by other artists, but often remixed, was remixed, and even collaborated with many others. When Bryn listened to the music of another artist, it was not with the ear of a collector so much as an artisan who tried to determine by what means another artist achieved a particular style, and how he, himself could arrive at this style in his own way. Once Bryn worked with something like dub or the broken beats of hip hop, he fashioned the styling in such a manner that it became his own. Dabbling in various genres was part of the process of making music, a textural exploration and experimentation to seek permutations in sound that did not exist before.
Staalplaat label runner – and friend to Bryn during his life – Geert-Jan described some recorded sketches found in Bryn's room after his death that provided insights into his music making process: "There were many materials where he took tracks for mastering. People thought he went out and made a CD and sent it off. Actually, he made twenty CDs and distilled out of these twenty, one. And then he made another twenty and then distilled out of these twenty, one. That's really amazing, because if you see the production he had, he had a production that was twenty times bigger than what we all have seen. I have seen the rough sketches, the unfinished tracks. Sometimes certain tracks he just redid and redid and redid until he thought, 'Yes, I can put it on the master.' The material he gave wasn't finished tracks, they were selections. There were a few masters, but this whole pile, you cannot use it all.
"There were even cassettes where he experimented with completely different types of music, like a painter who makes beautiful portraits, but played along with abstract just to see how that works. They were private sketches, private experiments of certain styles of music that he never released. So I had whole sheets with titles and they were all written in one go and the music was similar. The material I got was distilled from this; I got insight into the material he didn't show. I don't know how he did it."
Though Muslimgauze records are all different, some have qualitative similarities. Records like Z'ulm and Narcotic are more faithful to a particular ethnic sound traditions in East Indian or Middle Eastern regions. On these records the ethnic components are pronounced, whereas Western elements like broken beats and noise are used for accentuation. Conversely, albums like Zuriff Moussa, Melt, and Alms for Iraq are urban, Western, beat-driven noise albums with ethnic samples as flavor.
Bryn engaged in a process not unlike alchemy, wherein he worked out various combinations of potencies in the Western versus non-Western dichotomy. Beyond the East-West fusions were more abstract works such as The Blue Mosque and Beyond the Blue Mosque,, as well as parts of Gun Aramaic that utilize field recordings and Arabic language samples filtered and engineered into a more introspective result. The listener is taken on a paradoxical trip through emotional interiors utilizing the music of distant lands. Beyond even this was Azzazin, which avoided ethnic elements altogether, an experiment in pure electronic textures. For Bryn, these explorations were ongoing, never-ending progress.
In light of Bryn's evolving and ever-changing approach to music, one wonders why he was so steadfast in his views on the Muslim world, especially the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Moreover, why did he take a pro-Muslim stance when it remained unpopular? In Bryn's mind, he was not pro-Muslim as much as anti-oppression. Most peoples face persecution at some point, and for Bryn, in his time, Muslims were singled out.
He was sharply critical of how the state of Israel was founded, with the support of Western governments, including his own. Moreover, Bryn was convinced the West's political and material interests were responsible for the Iran/Iraq war and the 1991 Gulf War. He did not single out the West, however: Bryn lashed out against the USSR for their invasion of Afghanistan and subsequently Russia for their aggression against Chechnya. If, by some miracle all conflicts in the Muslim world were peacefully resolved in his lifetime, he certainly would have found other oppressed peoples to champion through his music. That Muslims try to follow Islam was purely incidental. Bryn also opposed oppression of other groups like Tibetan Buddhists and Tamil Tigers, and dedicated pieces to their struggles. Bryn did, on occasion, go beyond the political, to learn about Muslim cultures; this chiefly inspired The Blue Mosque and Beyond the Blue Mosque.
Bryn's desire to make music and champion struggles of the Muslim world was to the exclusion of the outside world. Sadly for Bryn, except for family relations, the only context in which he would meet other people was through his music. Since fate, and his own resignation, had consigned him to obscurity for so long, even this seemed a tall order. Happily, in later years, Bryn did cultivate more friendships and embarked on more successful tours in parts of Europe and even Japan. His later years also afforded him one of his most in-depth collaborations and friendships, Third Eye label founder the Rootsman, who also happens to be a practicing Muslim.
Together, Bryn and the Rootsman worked on a multitude of recordings, such as Al Aqsa Intifada, The City of Djinn and Return to the City of Djinn. It was through this collaboration that Bryn acquired his dancehall reggae and roots dub influences. The Rootsman reflects, "To get the best of him on a personal level, you had to be with him in person. On the telephone, there was always silences and stuff. He was never a guy who would fill the silences. He would take a while to open up. He was a kind and generous person. He was very cool, easy to deal with. He was just crazy. Sometimes I would call him on like, Tuesday – 'Do you want to do some more remixes?' – and he said, 'Yeah, okay,' and I'd send them to him Wednesday morning, and Friday morning I would get a DAT back with fifteen mixes on it.
"He was a guy who was very smart, very sharp, and very funny, in an untypical way, so that if you worked with him and got on his wavelength, he was a joy. He was cool guy and sorely missed. He never came across as a person who was interested in Islam as a religious faith. It was more to do with the political movement of the Middle East more than anything else. He was obviously very knowledgeable because when you look at his song titles he was talking about obscure figures in that part of the world and making obscure jokes. He wasn't a Muslim and to me he never came across as one who had a deep understanding of the Islamic faith." In later years, Bryn seemed to be emerging from his isolationist tendencies as he was besought with more requests for collaborations, remix projects, shows, and interviews. It's highly unlikely Muslimgauze would have ever "made it big," but he was getting wider recognition and acclaim for his music. This may have had something to do with emerging cultural changes in the latter decade of his life, with accelerating migrations to the West and the advent of electronic dance music. A new generation of savvy listeners perceived music beyond traditional pop constraints, and Muslimgauze was no longer such a stretch; increasingly, his listeners are from places to which Bryn dedicated his music.
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