Let’s consider the bastardisation of the word ethnic. Its contextual use is invariably pretentious and therefore so is the question. Similar to the incessant use of ‘iconic’, its overuse means it no longer carries gravitas. Now it simply means – indigenous and distinct to a culture or region. How drab.
It should mean; an entity or a thing that not only enriches its cultural progenitor, but promotes intrigue in and improves any existing perception of it. By listening to Muslimgauze the word ‘ethnic’, in this sense, is reclaimed, as it takes Islamic and Persian sounding music and sounds and makes them accessible.
But any medium, and music is no different, only augments its appeal through experience. When it comes to Muslimgauze, a good entry point for the uninitiated is a series of Muslimgauze mixes on Youtube, called the ‘Muslimgauze files’, collated as a tribute to Bryn Jones by a bloke called Ash McBride. Now I would say that as it was my initiation. The four albums I’ve been listening to all featured tracks that caught the ear on these mixes. I will concede that given the sheer volume, and it appears (so far), universal quality of the material, just randomly selecting a handful of albums without any prior knowledge would likely be just as effective. Indeed, a ten CD box set titled “Muslimgauze: Chasing The Shadow Of Bryn Jones” is surely the most extensive compilation to be committed to wax so far.
Bryn Jones, the man behind Muslimgauze, was a reclusive sort. He was pre-occupied with his craft and the processes of it; writing, mixing and recording. Self-promotion was at best a secondary concern, an inconvenience even. Popularity or the possibility of it the same, these were things that might interrupt him or unsettle his creative boudoir. Even worrying about sales was a fringe concern. The result today is that the Muslimgauze project sits in relative obscurity, and therefore someone first encountering Muslimgauze today is likely to do so either accidentally, incidentally or via a personal recommendation.
You can speculate as to what prompted Jones to first conjure the Muslimgauze project. Without question it’s in retaliation to the growing antagonism shown towards Islamic culture within his lifetime, and the subsequent treatment of his material but swathes of the music industry, but there’s little doubt he also saw the genre as an enticing canvas on which to experiment.
Upon listening to a group of Muslimgauze releases it’s apparent that each form of experimentation, by splicing the old and new, the contemporary and traditional, is a rejection of the limitations brought by adhering to tradition, in particular the meaning and application of it in the overarching cultural psyche. In the context of the here and now these works repudiate the idea of indigenousness as rooted. Here we have a product that borrows its inspirations and sounds from Islamic culture, a culture which is perceived to eschew the mores and modes of Western modernism by the west, that is successfully bastardized by a Mancunian with synthesizers and modulators, and this happened pre the hysteria of 9/11, in the eighties and nineties no less.
Superficially “Azzazin” incorporates little that’s immediately synonymous with Islamic and Persian music. It’s likely that those who are familiar with Muslimgauze’s thematical intent will weed out or isolate the sounds and inflections that are derived from it.
All the tracks are unnamed on “Azzazin”, so there’s no implied meaning beyond the album title. To speculate, this retreat may have given Jones the freedom to withdraw from concerted politicisation, to centre the focus on the musical value of the work and widen the scope for experimentation. Perhaps he couldn’t think of any names that fit, couldn’t be arsed thinking some up, or just didn’t have the time.
“Azzazin” focuses on the template that characterises many Middle Eastern rhythms, transposing them into a series of darker melodies that are ridden with abrasive glitches. The layering for most of the tracks is formulaic, usually condensed to only two strains, as found on ‘Azzazin 2’, or on ‘Azzazin 6’, imbued with fractured vocal samplings and random instrumental sounds whose surprising verbosity threatens to overwhelm the dark lethargy that surrounds them. Their sudden strangulation, making them fractured beams of expression attempting to escape, only enhances to the album’s sinister tone. Within the Muslimgauze cannon “Azzazin” best reflects the compulsive tension of genre tourism, as the music drifts further from the ethnic elements to an original concept, it signifies cultural exchanges invariably foment normality. Sixty years ago nobody went for a curry, now practically everybody does and loves it.
One of the posthumous releases under the moniker, “Iranair Inflight Magazine” carries many of the same structural techniques found on “Azzazin” and “Narcotic”, but through employing the contrast of a baritone dubbing of Tombak or Daf like sounds, and a high frequency of electro glitches, it creates a distinctly effervescent ambiance. Not for a minute are the sounds and style of the traditional instrumentals which foment the underlying melodies, say sounds that could come from Persian instruments like the Dozaleh, appear unfettered, as on occasion it’s hard to decipher when and where they end and the distortion begins.
It’s uncertain what period of Jones’ life this material comes from, but there are clear experimentations with tempo on “Iranair Inflight Magazine”. There’s also distinct nod, at least stylistically, to the meandering hesitancy and sparseness of hazed inebriation that characterises Jamaican dub. This can be heard on ‘A Small Intricate Box, Which Contains The Blue Opium Marzipan’, replete with drug associated title no less and on ‘Mysore Cochin Bangalore’, which, oddly enough, sounds similar to how I’d imagine Jamaican creole would translate ‘my sore arse in Bangalore’ to. A load of bollocks surely, but Jones pulls off these cultural juxtapositions or makes the listener make them, and that if anything is one of his greatest strengths as a producer.
On the album cover of “Narcotic” we’re presented with an androgynous chubby person of various feminine and masculine features wielding a pistol. This may have some popular reference which I’m unaware of, but to the (possibly) ignorant it’s borrowed seventies kitsch or a stereotypically western style satire. The album contains many fragments of vocal samplings which appear to be lines from songs, clerical outbursts, and, you suspect, from popular Middle Eastern movie and TV culture, or maybe not.
The authentic tone of strings and percussion share many similarities with those on “Zul’m”, where “Narcotic” diverges is employing the Aphex Twin sensibility – the chaotic randomness on ‘Effendi’ immediately springs to mind. Isolated rave sonics and grooves appear, and when they do, they do so with a mania and clarity, and in ‘Believers of the Blind Sheikh’ they eventually melt into the layers of percussion. Unlike “Zul’m”, on “Narcotic” the strings and percussion are largely separated from each other to emphasize the album’s hallucinogenic aesthetic. Those irresistible Persian strings elevate and separate from the electronic enhancements on ‘Sadaam’s Children’, where a sparse offering of melodic strings are augmented unobtrusively by abstract globular electro inflections, this combination mirrors the solemn subtext of the song’s title. Layers of drums are offered the same treatment on ‘Nazzareen’. The electronic distortions are subdued to begin with, replaced by repetitive bursts of string inflections, which at the end drift off into a sinister dustbowl of contorted metallic shimmering and muddled voices shrouded in atmospherics of wind meeting sand. It’s reminiscent of Demdike Stare’s darker offerings, and I’ll go out on a limb here and say that hailing from the same city they’re fans of Muslimgauze too.
As for “Zul’m”, it’s one of the finest records I’ve listened to, and it comes closest to truly bridging the aesthetics of electro and the traditional material, mainly due to its subtlety and seamless mixing. When the electronic inflections do appear they belong in these traditional sounding narratives.
‘Curfew, Gaza’ is a prime example, it’s a ten minute long repetition of a solemn flute allayed by a series of tempestuous electro thuds and hand drums. On ‘Fakir’ layers of Sitar-esque strings are piled on profusely, embellished with drums arrangements and a perishable but warm mantra like cry.
The two finest offerings on “Zul’m” place the emphasis on strings, percussion and drums, merging or dubbing them into satisfying crescendos. ‘Indian Summer of Benazir Bhutto’ contains a ravey garnishing of chimes, a morphing synth and the acceleration of various drums layers, while ‘Shiva Hooka’ centres around a high pitched piercing distortion of, say, a Persian Ney. It’s intertwined with a rhythmically slow synth wave that is shrouded by intermittent chimes, eventually a clicking ushers in the final symposium of all the sounds, which together form an extremely satisfying psychedelic hedonism.
While there is a thematic similarity between the albums, the diversity in their delivery, particularly between “Iranair Inflight Magazine” and “Zul’m” to pick two, suggests that I’ve only just scratched the surface. It’s likely that trying to get a full flavour of the Muslimgauze catalogue from just four albums is a daft enterprise. So that means I’ve just have to listen to more of it.
And the recent discovery of that intent is a massive surprise. Not that I had an aversion to it, but before I had no inclination to examine Middle Eastern music. In Muslimgauze Jones created a cocktail that contains enough familiar elements to liberate my inherent ambivalences, and, as a consequence, destroys the notion of the traditional and truly ethnic in music being incompatible with the tastes that characterise the current zeitgeist. Whether intentional or not, and I suspect it wasn’t Jones’ primary concern, that’s still quite an achievement.
Bryn Jones died in 1999. Terrifyingly that was half my lifetime ago, yet until last month I’d never heard of him or the Muslimgauze moniker. Even if we can’t truly comprehend the talent it took for him to be this prolific, you can see how Jones became consumed by the utopia that indulging in cultural vicariousness, and making it his own, could offer. The result? For those of us working our way through the catalogue, the mystery is sure to endure for a while yet.