“I am not here to please”: Exploring the new Arabic music of Jerusalem In My Heart

By day, you might find Radwan Moumneh at Hotel2Tango – the semi-mythic Montreal recording studio that he co-owns with producer Howard Bilerman and Thierry Amar and Efrim Menuck of the city’s apocalyptic post-rock orchestras, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Silver Mount Zion.

Moumneh is intimately acquainted with Hotel2Tango, where he also works as in-house producer and engineer, helping bring records by the likes of Ought, Eric Chenaux and Matana Roberts to life. Over the last few years, though, he has also been quietly refining his project Jerusalem In My Heart – an audio-visual collaboration with the filmmaker Charles-André Coderre which aims to refine what Moumneh calls “new Arabic music”.

Every Jerusalem In My Heart performance is different, assembling a fresh cast of players and improvised or freshly composed sound and visuals. But Moumneh has succeeded in distilling the project into two fascinating and individual records to date, 2013’s Mo7it A-Mo7it and the brand new If He Dies, If If If If If If, out now on Constellation. Both audaciously blend Arabic instrumentation – the buzuk and zurna – and Moumneh’s powerful, lamentful vocals with modern computer music techniques: take ‘A Granular Buzuk’, on which the instrument’s plaintive notes are slowly invaded by an insistent electronic pulse, and the slow application of delicate processing and ringing percussion gradually guide the track to a place of delirious intensity.

As becomes clear discussing the project with Moumneh over email, though, it would be somewhat reductive to see Jerusalem In My Heart as merely a feat of musical fusion – a simple studio pieces, neatly fusing West and East, modernity and tradition. Instead, as he explains to FACT, this project is primarily a personal expression, one that wraps up notions of identity, perception, geopolitics, and the conflicts – both internal and external – when you’re an Arab living, working and creating art in the west.

“My hope is that my work can connect with a person regardless of their language.”
Radwan Moumneh

Can you first tell me a little about your background? How did you come to work at/co-own Hotel2Tango?

I was born in Lebanon, and shortly after my family moved to the sultanate of Oman, due to the civil war. We then moved to Canada in the early 90s, where they decided to make a go of it here. But they didn’t like the environment, so they moved back to Lebanon a few years later, and I remained, as I wanted to pursue music and whatnot. I joined the Hotel2Tango around 2004 after having been working with Thierry, Efrim and Howard on a few projects. We had very similar tastes in music and production and they were wanting to relocate into a bigger, better space. We decided to buy a building with Constellation Records and Grey Market Mastering to house our studios in a new space, and they to house their label. It was, and remains an immensely rewarding experience and I am very proud of all the amazing records we have made in our humble studio. I am extremely lucky to have built this with them.

You now live between Montreal and Beirut. Is this a recent development? How do you divide your time between cities, and how has it affected the evolution of the project?

I do live in Montreal, but I am in Beirut rather frequently, as my whole family is there, and I try and visit three or sometimes four times a year. I also have a handful of projects on the go there, so I’m constantly on the move between the two. Being there is so hugely important to the project. I conceptualise a lot of my material when I am there. It’s such a messed-up place and yet remains so beautiful in so many aspects – aspects that no other place in the world has. It’s really hard to describe. I also am currently there quite a bit as I am working on adapting a Lebanese history book into a film with my wife, the writer Alexei Perry Cox. The book is set in Lebanon between the mid-1800s and the civil war.

Technologically speaking, has the project evolved since Mo7it A-Mo7it?

I can’t say that I see that myself. All of the music I make has the same core. The ideas always stem from a certain place, and from there, develop into various forms and take on whatever shapes come naturally to said idea. Tracks like ‘A Granular Buzuk’ and ‘Ah Ya Mal El Sham’ might be sonically drastically different, but for myself, they have so much in common in terms of intent, which is something that interests me vastly more than form. So the technological part only comes into play when I want or need to realise an idea that I am wanting to hear, versus creating a tool and then making music with it.

For ‘Ah Ya Mal El Sham’ for example, no electronic sound was producing the effect I wanted, so I had the flautist David Gossage layer multiple takes of his flute drones in an oriental quarter tone, all slightly pitched from one another to create that texture that I wanted. The whole track is two instruments, flute and voice, with absolutely no manipulation, recorded live next to one another in the sane room. It was the only way to be able to communicate the “intent” together, so we did it that way, and despite its faults, I feel my intentions are very clear in the track. Other tracks like ‘A Granular Buzuk’ start with raw acoustic ingredients like my buzuk and Sharif Shenaoui’s treated acoustic guitar, and from there I take the improv we did and cut and mash them up in software until I have a result that makes sense to me.

Listening to your work I get the sense of a pull between tradition and modernity – the way contemporary electronic techniques are intermingled with traditional instrumentation. This also feeds through to the presentation – the way song titles employ numerical characters, as a reference to the language of Arabic phone texting. Is this a tension you’re interested in exploring, or a place you come to naturally, given background and experiences?

It definitely feels like a natural place I tend to go to, but I do recognise that that natural place is rather unnatural and “tense”. Of course I am hugely interested in cannibalising all aspects of culture that attract me and trying to represent them in my work. It’s rather difficult as I don’t consider myself a technical musician – Middle Eastern music is so vastly complex and intricate that it often intimidates me. I can only hope that I am adding to the body of what I consider as contemporary Arabic music. And of course, one of the aspects of representing the “current” or “dated” aspect is the use of the numerals in my song titles. I like to think that I am making new Arabic music.

I spent quite a lot of time with Mo7it Al-Mo7it, but have little idea or the lyrical content of the songs, which I suppose now I think about it, troubles me slightly – it’s easy as a Westerner to see Arabic music as something “other” or ornamental. What do you write about? Is there a message that you’re trying to communicate, or are you happy for listeners to receive it in a more abstracted way?

It’s a very delicate idea that I am trying to get across with this project. You have to understand that that aspect you are talking about is a clear intention of mine. I want to present a body of work that challenges a listener on many levels, not only musically. The cultural shock of moving here as a teen was so marking. I came to an extremely hostile and non-welcoming environment. It was people’s “troubled” idea that didn’t sit so well with me. You have to ask yourself, as a Westerner, what that means to you when you are troubled by something “other” or “ornamental”.

I feel that the ‘lazy’ listener cannot have this expectation that the artist needs to spell out their intentions to an audience. Where to draw the line? It is only English-speaking audiences that have this expectation from me? I hope you get what I’m saying. That expectation comes from a place of discomfort in my opinion, and one has to confront themselves in asking why this discomfort exists. Here’s an example: There’s a long running French radio show called Hors-Champs that I listen to religiously. It’s a culture show that interviews various writers, directors, musicians, etc once a week. Laure Adler, the presenter, insists on presenting the material she references in her show in its original form. When she is talking about film for example, she presents excerpts in their original form. Not dubbed, nor translated. She has the expectation that the audience will make the effort to take in the work and put in their own effort to understand the piece being talked about. It just seems like the natural thing to do.

There is a clear intention in what I am saying and presenting, and people chose to “turn on” whatever filters they have in their heads vis-à-vis what they are taking in. If the work disturbs one, then that is a good thing, and it’s on that person to challenge themselves as to why this is disturbing. Would you be asking me this question if I was Mexican, Brazilian, German or whatever? The fact that the material is Arabic, with hints of English is enough to trigger certain doubts in your mind. It’s a very dangerous thing, and it’s that thing that I try and explore in my work. Simultaneously, I do hope that someone can take this in in an abstract way and still get something out of it. I recognise that that majority of my audience – sadly, only in that I wish this had a wider Arab audience – are European and North American, and the chances of them understanding the lyrical content is rather slim. My hope is that my work can connect with a person regardless of their language.

Photography by: Tanya Traboulsi

Could you give me an example of what you’re singing on a song such as ‘Al Affaq, Lau Mat, Lau Lau Lau Lau Lau Lau’?

The title ‘Lau Mat, Lau Lau Lau Lau Lau Lau’ is from graffiti I found in a half demolished building in Beirut. It was written in red chalk on a most beautiful baby blue wall. The building seemed like it had been abandoned since the civil war, as the tiles, doors, windows, plumbing etc. were all stolen from it. It’s a very haunting and special building near where I was born, and I was doing some shooting for JIMH visuals there when I stumbled upon it. The sentiment was so strong in the phrase and gave me shivers when I saw it. The lyrics discuss the Lebanese political system of a za’im – meaning leader – of a given religious/political denomination. All of these leaders are thugs and gangsters, yet they yield so much control and have people’s undying loyalty, despite their total failures and constant betrayals of their people. We use images of that graffiti in our show.

‘Al Affaq, Lau Mat, Lau Lau Lau Lau Lau Lau’
(The Hypocrite, If He Dies, If If If If If If)

The hypocrite
If he dies, if if if
For he taught
For he made me
And he slaughtered me like an animal
For who ‘pharaohed’ you,
So you could be a coquet?
For who ‘sultaned’ you,
So you could be a coquet?
Atheists, atheists, atheists
We are atheists.

There is a link on Constellation’s page for all the lyric translations.

What is the story of ‘Lau Ridyou Bil Hijaz’? It seems to come from a different place to the rest of the record – nearer to Middle Eastern pop music, I guess?

Yes, it’s definitely the odd one out on the record, and I was debating if I should even include it, but Eric Chenaux, my musical guiding light, insisted that it belonged in the sequence. It definitely comes from an aesthetic of popular music, so yes, pop in that sense. I had asked Liam O’Neill, drummer for Suuns to work on some beats for me for this song, and he came up with this, after I had given him a handful of songs for inspiration. The songs were almost all rai music from the early 90s.

Can you explain the name of the project? To me it seems to suggest exile or distance of some sort, and I wonder if in some way this is a personal association.

The name represents the idea that a place like Jerusalem can only exist in the mind and heart due to the conflicts of the region, and the restructuring of our political systems due to these conflicts. It can only be in our hearts as we physically cannot be there with our bodies. It also relates to a much broader idea of the place of the Middle East in today’s world. One cannot deny the mess we are in. A true disaster that has been brewing since the colonial past, and the Western geopolitical restructuring of all these nations as “liberated” countries.

Live, does Jerusalem In My Heart remain a strictly audio-visual project? How closely do you work with Charles-André Coderre? Why is that visual side important to what you do, and am I right in thinking that all the live performances are unique, in some way?

Indeed, the project has always had the live film performance aspect and always will. If I perform without Charles-André, I go by my name, and not JIMH. It’s such a large part of the project, and I cannot see one exist without the other. I’ve always seen the project as an immersive experience, and not only music, or visuals, or music with visuals. It’s not a “band” – more of an installation in my mind. It’s so disheartening to watch bands with absolutely gratuitous “psychedelic” or “evocative” visuals behind them as decoration or just visual noise.

Charles-André and I spend so much time working on how the performance will look and sound, and making sure that the feel is right. He is such a wonderfully talented man, and I am so lucky to have him as a partner in the project. He is one of the most musical people I know, despite not playing music, and I find that he and I often gravitate towards the same ideas and aesthetics when we work together. And the nature of the medium we use – multiple 16mm film loops – dictates that no two shows can be the same, even if we tried. We do try and make it as unique every night as we can, but of course, there is a lot of commonality between our shows, as the images remain the same, but the sequence changes constantly. We have up to seven 16mm projectors going sometimes throwing on multiple screens.

What Western music, electronic or otherwise, has been influential on the project?

I work in music as an engineer/producer, so understand that I am constantly immersed in Western music. I find it necessary to keep a fresh rotation of different music in my ears so that I can keep my reference points in check, so I tend to rarely listen to Western music at home, and that’s been the case for a very long time. But in terms of Western influences, I got into so much of the minimalist music that was coming out of the states in the 70s and 80s, as well as the stuff that was coming out of Berlin in the 80s. Franco Battiato’s music has also been a constant reference point for production. I also tend to listen to Alice Coltrane quite a bit, especially when I am on tour. I don’t know, it feels like anything one listens to is an influence, even if you don’t necessarily like the music. I’m curious why you are honing in on Western music as an influence, versus all music?

Good question – I suppose because I know that you’ve lived in the West, and there are experimental electronic qualities to your music that I guess I think of as a legacy of Stockhausen or Cage or other such composers.

Of course. I see what you mean. A couple of records that should be mentioned in this context are Dariush Dolat-Shahi’s Electronic Music, Tar and Sehtar, along with Alireza Mashayekhi’s Persian Electronic Music. But to be honest, cinema influences my work infinitely more than music. It’s a medium that touches creative aspects of my brain more than music does. I do spend way more time with film than with music and I feel I relate to it way more, hence the influence. I don’t mean it in the tacky “post-rock” cinematic-sounding way or whatever, but in terms of composition, spacing, timing, drama and all that stuff. It’s mostly what Charles-André and I talk about. I also am very curious about what music film makers are influenced by. For example, I don’t know if you know the French filmmaker Serge Bozon, but he made the film La France, which had a few musicians in it as actors. There is a moment where the actors from out of nowhere find instruments and break out into a beautiful song that seems to be recorded live during the film. Its absolutely sublime, and you see how and where music has influenced the filmmaker to make his film. It’s influences like that that interest me. Culture as art, not culture as just culture, like music is for the most part.

How has the reaction been, debuting this material in Middle Eastern countries? Did you have uncertainty or trepidation about how it might be received or understood?

Playing in Beirut for the first time as JIMH was rather stressful, to be honest. I wasn’t sure to what degree people would engage with the content and the performance. But I was and remain to be very touched by how generous the audiences are. The most obvious difference in that context is how people are reacting to the lyrical content, and to them getting some of the cultural references in the music. My dream is to take this to Tehran and North Africa, but my hardest of efforts have yet to yield any invitations there.

Given the lack of a clear manifesto to the project, have you found people quick to ascribe their own meaning – political, or cultural, or religious? Is that ever interesting, or satisfying?

This relates to the your point in the earlier question. Of course people are quick to categorise the project and assume a meaning, be it religious, political, personal or whatever. I am very comfortable with that. I wouldn’t say satisfying, but I am very comfortable in the challenge that is presented in breaking a person’s preconceived idea of what I am and what I do, and how it comfortably sits in their “international” categories in their mind. The project gets all sorts of silly labels from religious, to anti-Semitic, to self-exoticising and whatnot. I don’t want to make art that sits well with people ideologically. I live in the West, I put out records on a Western label, Western media writes about my project and Western people for the most part are my audience. But I am not Western, and the last thing I want to do is make work that “pleases” all these categories. I am not here to please.



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