Issue 21 / 2013

The Performativity of Muslimgauze

Ibrahim Khider

The editors of Glissando approached me to write of Bryn Jones aka Muslimgauze. The 21st issue of Glissando deals with the concept of “performativity”. At the time, I knew nothing of the word and soon realized it was an interdisciplinary term that required more than a mere consultation with a dictionary. I am skeptical of academic jargon in the context of music journalism which often alienates readers, including myself, when a sentence requires several reads to get the gist of its meaning. Indeed, music  journalism swells with post-graduate educated writers who infuse artists’ interviews and album reviews with the latest academic theories. While learning new words is part of a positive learning experience, trying to grasp an entire school of thought in a sentence is more involved. Consequently, what should be an enjoyable read turns into a chore.

Conversely, there is also a side of me that enjoys a challenge when it comes to writing. What if the reader needs to learn only one academic term, however rudimentarily it is described? Further, what of this word brings us a deeper appreciation of the topic at hand? Musician Terre Thaemlitz, known for his extensive use of academic jargon in his albums’ liner notes and essays, has managed to make his work more interesting because of it. He had the following to say on its use, “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.”

Armed with these sentiments, I headed out to my local reference library with the hope of making a potentially bourgeois word into something to empower readers. “Performativity” 1 can be attributed to James Langshaw Austin who gave a series of what would become highly influential lectures on “Words and Deeds” at Oxford University during the 1950s. Performativity is linked to speech; examples of performative statements are the exchange of marriage vows, to bequeath property in a will, or when a police officer states that someone is under arrest. Performativity, further cites 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.” 2

In other words, “to say is to do.” This appears to be at the heart of performativity, “words as action.” Since Austin’s lectures, other thinkers have appropriated the word to employ it in broader contexts: such as Judith Butler, who writes of gender performativity. However, for the purpose of this piece, I opt for narrower interpretations focusing on the expressions of Bryn Jones as Muslimgauze.

Bryn Jones was a prolific Manchester, England-based musician active from 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 influenced by the likes of Throbbing Gristle, before he changed his moniker to Muslimgauze in 1983, and with it, an emphasis on rhythm and ethno-stylings, something that would dominate the balance of his catalog. The first Muslimgauze album was Hammer & Sickle (Hessian, 1983), and more than just musical expression, his music is a political statement. However, unlike political artists such as Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan, Jones eschewed lyrics in favor of instrumental soundscapes wherein the only vocals used were from radio/television news clips, audio field recordings, and ethnic music. In the summer 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 and the music itself to research the political facts behind it.

There is a story of a Buddhist Monk who fashioned every piece of stone or wood that passed his hands into images of the Buddha. Over the course of his lifetime, landscapes were littered with Buddhas, expressions of a powerful devotion to a particular ideal. Similarly, Jones fashioned—with his instruments, found audio samples, and recording resources—dissent. This musical dissent never wavered, but intensified with growing speed and fervency as his musical output darkly bloomed, goaded by compounding Muslim-world tragedies. Jones believed in autonomy for all peoples, especially the Muslim world since they suffer considerable foreign dominance, and a full, unconditional withdrawal of imperialist/colonialist concerns.

Bryn Jones’ speech is recorded in three main contexts: letters, interviews, and his music. It is the latter that concerns performative expression, which is in album and track titles as well as the music itself. Like the monk who littered landscapes with his devotion to the ideals of the Buddha, so Jones left behind a staggering catalog of music that notes, responds to, and speaks out against injustice. Though Bryn Jones was, Muslimgauze music is, and continues speak out against conflicts nowhere near resolution today. Rather, the conflicts are only intensifying.

Performative statements of Muslimgauze deepened as Jones’ knowledge of the colonial history grew more elaborate. Political facts were the starting point, punctuated with audio samples, colorized with musical overtones that brought varying emotional moods. That Jones topically picked Muslim world regions to champion—such as Afghanistan, Iran, and Occupied Palestine—is incidental, in that if said regions attained peaceful resolution, he would find other places to champion such as occupied Tibet, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, or the people of Haiti. It just so happens the Muslim world has no shortage of conflict to draw from.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to cover all Muslim world references and performative expressions. Instead, we will hone on specific examples that epitomize ongoing musical dissent.

As far as Muslimgauze’s style is concerned, out of some 200 albums, not all of them are angry. Bryn had various broad styles he worked with, such as industrial, hip hop, electro-acoustic, cinematic, ethno-ambient, ethno-electro and on and on. Jones’ mood varied from one album to another. On Islamaphobia, which I would characterize as among his more “industrial” albums, Jones said he was in a bad mood while working on that album. But when I hear albums like Z’ulm, Narcotic, or Observe with Sadiq Bey—I do not hear anger. I would go further to say that Hamas Arc, Vote Hezbollah, and Veiled Sisters have varied emotions. That is not to say there is no anger, like Hebron Massacre, Betrayal, Return of Black September there are darker overtones on some albums more than others.  The vibe I get is defiance and empowerment for Muslim-world countries. Like Bryn Jones was cheering for them. Some albums are more aggressive than others, but that can be seen more as a texture thing, the way a painter decides she wants to use more “red.” Perhaps what is angry are the musical dedications, albums and track titles, but the music itself is not always so. Sometimes it sounds downright celebratory. The packaging generally explains Jones’ explicit political position, but the music is definitely more ambiguous, unless you listen to Al Aqsa Intifada, Betrayal, and Hebron Massacre where audio clips or vocal bits give clues.

As to Muslimgauze’s live performances, Bryn saw playing live as an extension of the music-making process. So for him, it was more like the crowd was watching him record than him giving a performance. Those who did shows with Bryn said he largely ignored the audience once on stage and just played his music, whatever he was working on at the time. He would not play “hit songs.” Like before one show he had just finished recording Fatah Guerilla so he played variations of that album style. Those in the crowd would say “Bryn was not with us,” he was off somewhere else. If the crowd like his music, that was fine, if not, he would not let it get to him. In the ’80s, Bryn tried using vocals, and sang about Occupied Palestine and Freedom Fighters on Occupied Land, and “Who is the terrorist, who is the freedom fighter?” Even though the crowd like it, Bryn was very unhappy with using vocals. For him, it felt like preaching. The instrumental approach with samples was something he liked a lot better.

I have DJ’d Muslimgauze’s music quite a few times, and the crowd responds positively to my selections. Because of the ethnic elements, people make the connections to the Middle East, North Africa, India, and the like. In a party setting, I tend to play the more “jumping” tracks. However, for a documentary, I might play something else. It is really all over the place. However, the music does come from an “empowerment” angle I think.

Although Jones often claimed that Muslimgauze was born from Israel’s invasion of Southern Lebanon in 1982, dubbed Operation Peace for Galilee; early Muslimgauze reference Soviet colonialist power concerns in album and track titles. Starting with 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.” That is when Jones’ concerns over colonialism first surfaced in his music, 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 ’80s was the apex of the Cold War, with mutually assured destruction (MAD) on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Jones was keenly anti-communist. Consequently, this put him at odds with his experimental music contemporaries, who tended to be anarchists or bedroom Marxists. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that began on December of 1979 was, by the time of 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  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 often 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 geopolitical 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. Western backed states such as Israel even advised on “interrogation techniques.” To his credit, when Iranian popular resistance verged on the point of civil war between the regime’s security apparatus on one hand and the masses on the other, Reza Pahlavi stepped down. Pahlavi 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 plotting to re-install a Western-backed regime and further 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, but this was not the most controversial facet of Muslimgauze.

The most controversial aspect of Muslimgauze 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’s 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) who happened to be a Palestinian resistance fighter and mercenary. Following that The Rape of Palestine (Limited, 1988) had had the dedication, “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 of Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yasser Arafat shaking hands and was “Dedicated to a United Arab Response.”

As Jones read and learned of the on-going injustice  in Occupied Palestine, 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, Jones’ outrage grew. That the Palestinians had no recourse to civil means of conflict resolution such as voting or petitioning and they were hemmed in from all corners outraged Jones. More than that, the duplicitous approach of mainstream media to the conflict: 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 a fact that viruses often contain their own cure. This may be why Jones was anti-colonialist, having realized the  manner in which Great Britain acquired her wealth and power, and how this very colonialism is still at the root of Muslim-world conflicts. Though Jones is long dead, Muslimgauze’s music continues to make the statement from beyond the grave, epitomizing performativity. I recall having once reviewed music for on-line magazine, Dusted, and was explicitly instructed by the editor not to mention politics. The album to be reviewed was a Rootsman/Muslimgauze collaboration called Al Aqsa Intifada. On learning of the restriction, my fellow writers laughed, “as if the name, Muslimgauze was not a political statement in and of itself.”

  1. Loxley, James. Performativity. New York: Routledge, 2007 

  2. Ibid, 8