THE PASSION OF BRYN JONES
October 28, 2023 - permalink
Bryn Jones died in 1999, and by many accounts he had barely left Northern Europe in his whole life, except for one trip to Japan to play a couple of shows in 1998. He had most definitely never been anywhere near the Middle East, a fact that interviewers seemed to love to bring up at any opportunity.
It was fair line of questioning. By the time Jones died, he had completed around 90 albums (!) as Muslimgauze, a musical project which was almost entirely focused on bringing light to Palestinian liberation, with some other very brief forays into Middle Eastern and South Asian politics. With titles like The Rape Of Palestine, Vote Hezbollah, Hamas Cinema Gaza Strip, and Betrayal (the word itself set upon an image of the 1993 handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin), and music that put traditional arabic instruments and scales in a blender with industrial textures and trance-inducing structures, it was an all-encompassing aesthetic from the very beginning. And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t effective and affecting.
At least until you saw the guy.
Bryn Jones was a dorky looking white dude from Manchester, England. To look at him was enough for many people to take the piss from his extreme, militant-flavored discography, and dismiss him outright. He looked like kind of a dweeb, wearing a slightly-too-big leather jacket. And once people learned that he had never been to the Middle East, that was that on that.
But the context was (as always) more complicated: Jones had apparently been offered fully expensed trips from record labels, multiple times, and always refused. When asked about it,Bryn Jones in Chain DLK, Iss. 5 he would give plain answers along the lines of:
I would never go to an occupied land, others shouldn't. Zionists living off Arab land and water is not a tourist attraction. To have been in a place is not important. So you can't be against apartheid unless you have been in South Africa?
All good points, of course. What’s more, he showed no interest in Islam as a religion, and he also asserted more than once that he had no desire to insert himself into the material lives or mental landscape of Palestinians: “Muslimgauze have no link with any Palestinians. They have enough trouble without having a Mancunian’s music thrust upon them.”
Perhaps more interestingly, Jones claimed that if the occupation of Palestine were somehow magically resolved, he wouldn’t celebrate or change his overall approach — he would simply turn his attention to another region and situation of colonial violence, such as China’s occupation of Tibet. In a 1984 zine interview,Elephant Weekly No. 4 when asked about his “ideas for the future” of Muslimgauze (a project which had just begun), he responded: “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.”
We know Jones’ thoughts about these subjects because of the two-dozen or so articles and zine interviews with him when he was alive (and the 40-or-so articles written about him posthumously). His statements tend to be bombastic, simplistic, and posturing, but also somewhat well-informed. The interviews also betray a much different reality of his day-to-day life: Jones lived in his parent’s basement, never held down a meaningful semblance of a job, and by the sounds of it, only left his house (driven and picked up by his dad) to go to the library (presumably to read about Middle Eastern politics) and to a local studio to record. Most people say that he was very quiet in person, and avoided talking about politics at all, preferring to turn the subject towards musical gear instead.
I discovered Muslimgauze around 2000, shortly after Jones died suddenly of a rare fungal blood infection. I amassed around 30 of his albums (digital copies only) over the years, and still listen to some of them pretty regularly. He was staunchly analog, using a mix of field recordings, drum machines, synths, and live percussion, and claimed over and over again that he never used a sampler or even a computer. If that’s true, it’s shocking just how authentic of a sound he was able to put to DAT tape. He clearly wanted his music to be atmospheric and immersive, sometimes to a fault: certain pieces repeat and repeat with little if any discernible variation, becoming endurance tests.
The Palestinian cause was one of the key things that politicized me when I was younger. Listening to political punk music and reading Adbusters was a gateway to Chomsky. Reading Chomsky was a gateway to Finkelstein and by the time I started my undergrad in 2004, I could tell you a whole lot about what happened after World War I, and then 1948, and then 1967, and the first and second intifadas and the whole mess of what’s been happening since. Finding Muslimgauze in the early 2000s felt like finding a kindred spirit, in a way: another white person whose heart had been completely crushed by the project of Zionism, and was now fixated on communicating that.
I remained very much affected by the subject until the first year of my undergrad, when the topic came up in a discussion and a TA stated bluntly that “white guys love talking about Israel and Palestine but don’t want to talk about drinking water on reserves in Canada.”
I’m a firm believer that, in our current screen-damaged state of being, we have been bamboozled into thinking our opinions matter way more than they actually do, or should — that we must have a “take” on everything. That if we don’t have a “take” on something, we somehow aren’t “standing with” the oppressed, as if adding an overlay to our profile photos and posting long rants places us in solidarity with anyone on any level, other than our particular social media algorithm group. And of course, it’s not enough to just have any take, it must be The Right Take, correct and air tight, lest you step outside of the Overton Window.
I’m not immune to the judgments of it all. I mean, I see the takes, and I judge them, even when I don’t participate (and I tend not to want to participate at all in the public performance). I’ve been thoroughly disgusted by the hand-wringing and the support for colonial state violence, drenched in both equivocation and false equivalency — as if rockets and missiles are the same thing, as if the power to turn off access to water in itself isn’t a tremendous enactment of violence. I’ve been sickened by the unquestioning repetition of spurious claims about things like beheaded babies,The claim — arising from one reckless reporter repeating a claim made (with no documentation or evidence) by one soldier, has traveled around the world at light speed. Despite some pretty thorough debunking efforts, it’s very hard to re-tube the toothpaste. Palestinians blowing up their own hospital,Anyone who has followed Palestinian resistance for any length of time knows that Palestinian rockets tend to do very minor damage to large buildings, and they have never done the kind of damage seen in the hospital blast. Add to that the fact that Israeli military was warning for several days that the hospital should evacuate, and the “misfired rocket” narrative seems even sillier. or the nature of the strike on October 7th.While the rest of the world has relentlessly used the discourse of a “terrorist attack,” Hamas has called it a military offensive. The reporting by Ha’aretz of the list of those killed seems to support the latter: about 60% of those killed were military personnel. There are also questions about how many Israelis were actually killed in crossfire from the IDF, according to Israeli survivors themselves. It’s just fucking gross, and the whole purpose of it is to bolster state violence and give a pretext to genocide.
And yet, you can’t really be Polish without feeling a close kinship with Jewish people: the atrocities of the holocaust are completely intertwined with the history of our country, and those visceral memories are still so fucking real in the Polish mind. The holocaust is imprinted on Polish culture, and will be forever. Poles also know a thing or two about occupation — or more specifically, being occupied, having our borders relentlessly re-drawn at the whims of nation states with significantly more military power than ours. It’s possible to hold two seemingly contradictory feelings at once.
At my most compassionate, what I’m able to muster is an understanding that being a “Canadian” is fucking uncomfortable at best, and that many Canadians can’t fully stomach the idea of supporting Palestinian resistance because of what it would imply for “our own” nation. One of the more jarring things I’ve seen is how people have transitioned from having LAND BACK in their bios to decrying Hamas completely whole cloth, as if they are not an elected government who has a mandate to defend their territory militarily.The idea that Hamas is a terrorist organization that wants to “wipe Israel off the map” is also an outdated claim. They are an elected government, and the most recent Hamas charter, adopted in 2017, supports a return to 1967 borders. Of course, since 2017, much has happened to further Israeli settlements.
What the fuck do people think LAND BACK means? LAND BACK but only if you ask nicely?
And as soon as I start to really get revved up to go full on into this, I stop myself. I really don’t want to have a “take” on this, because any take feels cheap at this distance. My heart breaks for Palestinians now, as it has so many times over the years. And when I find myself slipping into equivocation, too, my mind floods with questions that help me regain perspective.
How many times would you suffer going through a checkpoint and being interrogated by an 18-year old who treats you like a piece of shit before you fought back?
How many homes of your family and friends would have to be bulldozed before you would take up arms against the bulldozer drivers?
How long would you have to be backed into a corner, and how many of your family and friends would have to be killed before you did something about it?
How long could you live in a country that is half the size of Toronto, not allowed to leave or return? How long could you do that as you watched another part of “your country” be completely atomized and controlled under the boot of occupying forces?
How much could you take? How much would you push forward with peaceful protest marches and in that, watching your fellow people gunned down or disabled — shot in the knees to make sure they’d never fucking march again — before you lashed out?
We condemn Palestinians when maybe we should be commending them. It’s actually kind of incredible how much restraint they’ve shown, completely disproportionate to the indignities and atrocities they’ve suffered for the past 100+ years. But we don’t commend active resistance to settler colonialism because we could just as easily be the targets of that resistance. That is a really hard thing to sit with, isn’t it?
And just like that, I find myself with a “hot take” that feels like it could double as Muslimgauze liner notes, and it doesn’t feel great. It’s hard to fully throw down with the aesthetic and bombast of Bryn Jones — mostly because he tended to veer far too easily into anti-semitic tropes, like a car driving in the right direction can still veer into oncoming traffic. It was never really clear whether Jones was a fetishist, or a scholar, or both (or neither). He hated explaining his music in specific terms, prefering to make really broad political statements, with fervor. And fervor never sits well alongside nuance.
Nuance is important, of course, but there’s even nuance to using nuance. In the wrong hands, nuance becomes a weapon just like a hammer, or perhaps more like a knife that can stab holes in a larger, more important idea.
There is no nuance in a bulldozer destroying a home.
There is no nuance in penning in a whole country and its people behind walls and checkpoints.
There is no nuance in cutting off electricity, and water, and hospital and communications infrastructure to help speed up a process of genocide.
If Jones were still alive, his discography might be in the mid-triple digits by now, and he’d still be laser-focused on Palestinian liberation, because the situation has only gotten worse and worse.
For all of the faults and weirdness around his body of work and legacy (or lack thereof), one of Jones’ redeeming qualities was his optimism. He didn’t just feel like Palestinian liberation was possible, but that it was inevitable: when asked to speculate on the future, he’d always say the situation would resolve in a free Palestine. He believed in Palestinians’ ability to defend themselves and determine their own future.
That outcome doesn’t feel inevitable right now. As this gets sent out, Israel has cut off water, electricity, and communications infrastructure to Gaza. It seems to be spinning out of control further by the day. I know it feels disempowering to watch this happening from a distance — but I urge you to sign the Commons petition for a ceasefire, and attend any solidarity events that you’re able to.