Industrial music lost one of its most unique and prolific artists when Bryn Jones of Muslimgauze died of a rare blood disease on January 14, 1999.
Bryn Jones left behind a musical legacy of over 90 albums released before his death and more than 50 released after his death. Musically, Muslimgauze strived to be hard to define. There is no "typical sounding" Muslimgauze release. He collaborated with a number of different artists in different genres. Early Muslimgauze releases in the 1980s were drum machine-oriented. He did a dub CD with the Rootsman. He made a few drum and bass singles. He did dance remixes and ambient albums. Later releases could almost be classified as noise albums. Throughout his career though, there is a definite Muslimgauze style of middle-eastern rhythms that is trance-inducing and infectious.
While sales of Muslimgauze CDs have never been earth shattering, Muslimgauze retains a strong cult following even after the death of its creator. The prolific nature of Bryn Jones has meant that new material is still being released five years after his death. Muslimgauze's catalog is a collector's dream project. Most albums had a maximum press run of 2000 copies. Early cassettes can be maddeningly difficult to hunt for - the first homemade cassette recently sold on eBay for nearly $1000.
Part of some fanatics' attraction to Muslimgauze is not entirely musical, but is about finding clues about its mysterious front man. In the more than one hundred Muslimgauze releases, none have included a photo of Bryn Jones. For a musician, he showed an unusual amount of camera shyness, and very few pictures of Jones have been published. The politics of Muslimgauze is another attraction to some. While sometimes cryptic, Jones showed an unwavering, relentless dedication to the Palestinian struggle. At times Bryn seemed to be casting a sorrowful eye at poverty in Arabic states, while at other times seeming to give ambiguous support to violent terrorist organizations like Hamas.
In numerous articles, Bryn Jones said that his inspiration in starting Muslimgauze was the invasion of Lebanon in 1981. In an article in Network News in 1990, Bryn Jones said, "Every piece of music Muslimgauze release is motivated by a political fact, mostly Palestinian. Also, Iran and Afghanistan." Yet, Bryn was an Englishman, had no ethnic ties to the Middle East, and never visited the region.
Five years after Bryn's death, his music is more relevant than ever.
One can't help but feel that the timing of his death was inopportune when you look at what has happened in the Middle East (and the world) since then. Muslimgauze fans can't help but wonder what Bryn would have thought of these events, and what they would have inspired him to create.
Bryn Jones' death came as a complete surprise. No one seemed to be aware of any health problems before Jones contracted pneumonia in December 1998, and was rushed to a hospital on New Years Eve. In the hospital, Jones slipped into a coma from which he would not recover.
At the time, Bryn was working with Martin Lee Stephenson of Apollon on the Year Zero CD. They worked together by trading source material back and forth.
"It was a shock. I was working on Year Zero with him at the time. We had just finished and he sent me a Christmas card which included his track list names. I spoke to him just before Christmas and his kit had broken down. He was a little frustrated. A few days later he died. Year Zero was Bryn's last finished work. I was deeply sad. I miss him."
Bryn was a very private man. If he did have any prior health conditions he kept them a secret from his collaborators, business partners, friends and even his own family. Bryn's nephew Gareth Jones currently handles the musical side of Muslimgauze.
"We didn't know anything at all [about any health problems]. It was a very big shock," Gareth said. "We knew he had pneumonia at first. Normally with pneumonia you treat it and it would eventually go away normally. It was such that his body couldn't fight the pneumonia and it put him into a coma. This fungal virus thing just took over and there was absolutely nothing we could do. Making the decision to turn off the life support machine was very, very hard. But in the end, it was down to keeping his dignity. We all sat there with him. It was a very hard time."
Gareth said that while his family was grieving Bryn's passing, thousands of e-mails flooded in offering condolences.
"The amount of e-mails we got when he died was amazing. It was really touching. There's a lot of grief, especially for my grandma and granddad. And it did help. I went on to the forum [lslamaphonia] and thanked everybody for all the comments that everyone sent to us. It did mean a lot to us."
Geert-Jan Hobijn of Staalplaat records was with Bryn Jones' family when Bryn died. Hobijn had the grim responsibility of accepting the DAT tapes of all of Bryn's music, some finished and unfinished. "There is material from his room that his parents gave to me," Hobijn said. "When I objected they said, 'If you don't take it we will throw it away.' I took all I could but have released nothing that was a work in progress."
Staalplaat currently keeps Muslimgauze fanatics happy with their subscription service. When a new Muslimgauze release (or re-release) comes out, it's sent to the subscriber, and an amount is deducted from the subscriber's balance. There have been 30 subscription releases so far. I asked Hobijn if he thought the service could last another five years. "It is hard to say. I have a few masters, but I tend to change my mind a lot."
Gareth Jones retains control over the business side of Muslimgauze, but has a mostly hands off approach. Gareth said, "They run everything by me. I really just tell them do what they like. I let them get on with it, because they know the stuff."
There is no "approval committee" for new Muslimgauze material. Each label is free to interpret how to design and package the material they're releasing on their label.
The album cover design is sometimes one of the few clues the listener has to interpret Muslimgauze's work. The cover to the Betrayal CD featured the famous handshake between Rabin and Arafat. Ayatollah Khomeni was a frequent cover subject. The cover to Hebron Massacre included press clippings with pulled quotes about revenge killings against Jews in response to the Hebron Massacre. Most album covers were created by the record labels, and approved by Bryn. But with Bryn gone, the question arises of what should be on the cover of a Muslimgauze release? Do you follow Bryn's tradition of using politically charged images on the cover even though he can't approve them anymore? Or would that be presumptuous of what Bryn would have thought about events that have occurred after his death?
I asked Charles Powne of Soleilmoon if there was ever a question about what Bryn would have thought about the design of a CD. "No, there was never any question about these issues. He never objected to any of the covers we made."
At press time, no one has used an image of the World Trade Center Towers on the cover of a Muslimgauze release. John Goff is the producer of a Muslimgauze remix project that has released one record of Bryn's work remixed by other artists. He puts it best when he said, "I wouldn't feel comfortable making that bold of a statement for someone else's artwork."
I asked Martin Lee Stephenson if he felt that making music was a political act for Bryn. "Very much so," Stephenson said. "He felt that making music was his way of getting his message across."
Stephenson is the driving force of the band Apollon and collaborated with Bryn Jones. "I think it is fairly safe to assume Bryn would be influenced by 9/11," Martin said. "It may have sparked a whole new era in his work."
In the sleeve notes to "Muslimgauze vs. Bass Communion", Steven Wilson of Bass Communion recalls asking Bryn about his music influences. "I learned that Bryn did not feel an affinity for ANY other music, his agenda being almost entirely political."
What the message of Muslimgauze was exactly is open to interpretation. For some, anti -Semitism is the 800-pound gorilla that accompanies Muslimgauze's work. While there is nothing overtly racist against Jews within Muslimgauze's music, some are made uncomfortable by tracks with names like "Tel Aviv Nailbomb" or "No Human Rights for Arabs in Israel."
Almost all of Muslimgauze is instrumental. It's impossible to point to one track or album and say that something is or is not anti-Semitic. His music is ambiguous on the subject, and that makes some people uncomfortable.
At the two largest labels that released Muslimgauze, neither Powne at Soleilmoon nor Hobijn of Staalplaat could remember a single complaint lodged against their respective companies that claimed that Muslimgauze was anti-Semitic. According to Powne, the worst was: "One or two people have tossed around the anti-Semite slur from time to time."
Terry Bennett has been the webmaster of the official Muslimgauze web site, the Messenger, for years. He recalls, "There have been a couple of e-mails over the years of the nasty sort. I would ask Bryn if he'd like to pass along any personal response from him and it was always the same. 'Tell them to fuck off.' I loved it. I took it to task to respond on occasion speaking from my own point of view. Mostly it was a case of what right does one have to express their view and Bryn doesn't have to express his."
Hobijn recalls, "Bryn was not an anti-Semite. He did [an] interview in an Israeli newspaper that came to the same conclusion, and in Berlin he played during an Israeli festival. He would not be my friend nor be on Staalplaat if he was [anti-Semitic]."
The Anti-Defamation League's web site contains no warnings about Muslimgauze being anti-Semitic. And while Muslimgauze's critics may say that's because the ADL have never heard of him, a counter-argument could be made that Bryn Jones never gave the ADL a reason to appear on their Web site.
Muslimgauze is and was polarizing on an extremely sensitive
subject. People can have very strong opinions on the conflict in the Middle
East, and a "with us or against us" attitude exists with extremists
on both sides. One underlying question about Muslimgauze is: is it possible
to support the Palestinians without being an anti-Semite? Even though Jones
was neither a Muslim nor of Arab descent, is it possible that he was deeply
touched by Islamic culture, and deeply disturbed by what he saw as vast injustice
committed against Palestinians and Arabs?
"Bryn had an opinion, but did not mind others having a different opinion." Hobijn said. "I think his opinion was an artistic opinion and I have never seen a more interesting, powerful and beautiful one. I miss him for that."
While a lot of Muslimgauze currently being released are re-releases
of previous work, there is still some unreleased material that is still being
released five years posthumously. And not just on Staalplaat or Soleilmoon.
There are a variety of small labels releasing Muslimgauze CDs.
According to Hobijn, "If you would ask Bryn for a track on a compilation, you would get a 60 minute DAT tape." Which may explain why more than 10 different smaller labels have released Muslimgauze CDs since Bryn Jones' death.
Charles Powne from Soleilmoon adds, "He gave a lot of music to other labels, a good portion of which have never paid a dime for the use of his music. It's standard practice in the independent music business, unfortunately. I'm not afraid to name-and-shame Australian label Extreme in this context. Many excuses, very few accountings of sales even fewer payments."
Very few people would speak on the record about Extreme Records... including Extreme Records themselves. They did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. According to one source, Extreme remixed some of his music and changed the text of his CDs without his permission.
Extreme's loss proved to be Soleilmoon's and Staalplaat's gain. After leaving Extreme, Bryn Jones released dozens of records on those two labels. Including the very first CD on Staalplaat, and the second cassette release on Soleilmoon. Bryn Jones told Terry Bennett that if those two labels hadn't stepped in, Jones didn't think he would have been able to continue on with Muslimgauze.
Sales of Muslimgauze material had increased by late 1998 when Steven of Bass Communion last talked to him. "By this time a limited edition series had been a big success and his CDs were regularly reviewed [and] discussed. Many other musicians had asked him to remix their work or collaborate with them and his music had inspired a fanatical following."
The girth of the Muslimgauze catalog is astounding to say the least. The official Muslimgauze web site lists 177 separate Muslimgauze releases.
"Obsessive would not be too strong a word to describe [Bryn]," according to Powne at Soleilmoon. "I think Bryn was nothing more than an artist with a single-minded drive to record music. Towards the end he'd accumulated an impressive collection of recording equipment and was turning out a complete album every week, sometimes faster."
According to Hobijn, Bryn would sometimes work at a studio outside of his home. "He would get up and go to the studio and work all day, non-stop." Hobijn told a story of a time when Bryn stayed with him. "Once we slept late, and Bryn was up for some time. My girlfriend asked if it was a problem, 'no,' he said, 'but at home half a CD would be ready by now!'"
Martin Lee Stephenson of Apollon added, "He once told me that, 'some people knit... I make music!'"
According to Stephenson, Bryn had a brilliant sense of humor. "I'm not sure he was easy to get to know," Martin said. "People liked him because he was pleasant, intelligent company, but he didn't trust many people."
That's a sentiment that Bryn's nephew agrees with. "I don't think he did trust very many people," Gareth said. "He did like to keep everything to himself. He'd sit in his bedroom for days on end, making tracks and things like that. He did like to keep things to himself."
Powne from Soleilmoon said "I think [Bryn] really valued his privacy. I'd say he was a bit of a recluse, and I don't think he formed many friendships outside of the world of music. Mostly we talked about his latest recording projects. I think it was the most important thing in his life, so perhaps it's not surprising."
Bennett of the Muslimgauze web site agreed. "He was a very
quiet and humble fellow who never quite believed the impact his music was having
on those that followed it."
"He was a very secretive person," Gareth said. "He was a big Manchester United fan. And I'm a big Bolton Wanderers fan... and the teams don't like each other! I'd listen to certain things of his and go, 'What the hell's that?' And he'd say 'Well what the hell are you listening to?' He'd listen to my music and say it was crap. That was the kind of relationship we had. We'd just have a laugh."
Gareth Jones' earliest memories of his uncle are musical. "Even when I was five years old, he had this musical sort of talents then. Sitting in his bedroom, watching him play about with all sorts of stuff... drums and bongos and all sorts of things," Gareth added. "He let me have a bang about on his drums!"
'Bryn Jones is deeply missed. Both on a personal level by those who knew him, and on a musical level by those who were inspired by him. Powne mentioned "Although he may have had imitators, he always had a sound that was entirely his own."
What Bryn's legacy is, has not yet been determined. While Muslimgauze's sales never caught the world on fire, there are hundreds of artists, DJs, labels and fans that keep Muslimgauze's music alive every day. And when the well finally runs dry and there is no more new Muslimgauze music and nothing left to re-release, people like John Goff will keep his music going through remixes and reinterpretations. Bryn Jones has been dead for five years, but Muslimgauze lives on and continues to inspire people worldwide. Viva Muslimgauze.
For newcomers, Muslimgauze's back catalog of material can be pretty intimidating, With 177 different choices, where's a good place to start?
Here are some response to the question: "What's your favorite Muslimgauze release?"
"Infidel is definitely my favorite. He gave me that CD when I went round, and he said 'Have a listen to this, and see what you think.' That's one of my lasting memories. That's one track that is pretty close to me. I'm trying to push Charles of Soleilmoon to re-release that one."
Gareth Jones, Bryn Jones' nephew.
Currently handling the business side of Muslimgauze.
"I really like Azzazin and Return of Black of September, released by Staalplaat. From our own catalog I like Uzi Mahmood and Fakir Sind. I also enjoyed City of Djinn, his collaboration with the Rootsman."
Charles Powne, owner of the Soleilmoon label.
"For my money, you can't beat Salaam Alakum, Bastard. It's an absolute classic album from start to finish. Unfinished Mosque and Tandoori Dog are other ones I find myself listening to again and again.
Rick Kinney, author of this article.
"He was getting better and better so I like the recent stuff. I like material as Sandtrafikar."
Geert-Jan Hobijn, of the Staalplaat label.
"I am a terrible person to ask about favorites. My favorite is the one I'm listening to at the time, though I will always have a soft spot for Buddhist On Fire, as that is where the journey truly began [for me]. 'Arabs Killed By Israel' makes up the first side of the Zealot 10" is one track that stands out in my mind."
Terry Bennett, webmaster of the official Muslimgauze site.
article by Rick Kinney
This interview originally appeared in Industrial Nation Issue 20, 2004