Jerusalem In My Heart: Interview
“I saw how people cast their racism, or maybe not intentional racism, but ignorance. People project onto you what they think they understand ‘you’ as being.”
In addition to his role as the founding member of Jerusalem In My Heart, Radwan Ghazi Moumneh is a technical engineer at the Hotel2Tango recording studio in Montreal, where works alongside members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion. The studio has worked with a number of acclaimed acts, including Colin Stetson and The Arcade Fire, which understandably induces an expectation of the slickest and most refined production on Mo7it Al-Mo7it, Radwan’s debut for Constellation. However, the misused gear and grizzled effects of Syrian wedding singers appear to be a more dominant source of influence here, along with a preference for electronic experimentation and a past enthusiasm for harsh punk music.
Along with Malena Szlam, a prodigious filmmaker from Chile, and Jérémie Regnier, an electronic music producer from France, Jerusalem In My Heart make up a trio of artists who strive to create exciting and relevant art delivered with socio-political bite. TMT spoke to Radwan about the tribulations of relocating to Canada from the Sultanate of Oman, as well as the unjustified prejudices surrounding prayer, religion, and antisemitism that continue to lurk at the heels of this most extraordinary project.
Moving from Beirut to start up your own recording studio in Montreal must have proved quite a challenge. How did you get involved in the music industry?
Well, my family and I moved to Montreal in 1993 from the Sultanate of Oman, which is where I grew up. I’m actually Lebanese, but didn’t grow up in Lebanon because of the civil war, which started when I was born. That led to us moving to Canada, but there was absolutely no music in my family! Upon moving here, I started hanging out with the “wrong kids,” and we decided to start a band and play music together, but at that point I really knew nothing about music at all.
My parents then decided to move back to the Middle East, but I stayed on to study recording because I wanted to pursue music. Many years after that, I joined the Hotel2Tango studio, where I have been working for the last eight years. So I have spent a lot of time producing other people’s music, and that is still my main job.
What were your major aims when you started recording your own music?
When I first started, I was playing pretty harsh punk music, which I liked a lot back then. I also enjoyed a lot of the weirder, post-punk bands from the 70s and the 80s, all of the stuff that had more of an artier vibe to it – people who were experimenting with effects and instruments other than just drums, bass, and guitars. Those influences really shaped my desire to work with cassettes and tape loops; I wanted to try and saturate my work with different instruments to accomplish certain aesthetics.
Simultaneously I was discovering this other type of music that was emerging in Syria, which was like a cassette culture of live performances by local singers who would perform at weddings and parties. The equipment they used was almost misused because everything sounded so distorted and there would always be a lot of echo on everything, which made it sound super psychedelic. It’s a flavor I very much like in music, and of course this is all over our new record; this extreme saturation and extreme echo is everywhere.
Absolutely, that really seems to come through on the album. But because the Syrian music you mentioned is so off the radar, in the West at least, how did you come across those tapes to begin with?
That genre of music exists in a sort of traditional folkloric style, which evolved through access to cheap Chinese equipment. Built in mixers with tacky effects and busted speakers all played a large part in creating a sound I just fell in love with. So I would go off into this one particular flea market in Beirut, and there was an Egyptian man who had a stand. I would spend hour after hour at a time just auditioning these cassettes – I now have quite the collection by the way – and just pick up whatever would appeal to me in terms of that aesthetic. Those cassettes were also very cheap, so I would walk out with like 25 cassettes, five or six of which would be really great. I also went to Syria quite regularly and visited a lot of music shops where I would sift through material and buy plenty of stuff.
So this material is quite prevalent in the Middle East?
Yeah, it’s pretty easy to pick up there. But it’s such a classist society, so you have to know where to look. At the time, the majority of my friends in Lebanon would be like, “You are crazy, where did you find this?” – it was just so removed from their world. For me, it was very much my aesthetic and that was what I was drawn to.
Very little Arabic music gets mainstream attention in the West unless it is packaged and distributed in a certain way. Do you find that there is much interest in this specific style of music, upon original release, in either Canada or Lebanon?
Not in Lebanon because of the classist aspect of culture that unfortunately exists there. It seems that the people who make and consume this kind of music are very much seen as lower class; mostly Syrians who live in Lebanon who are, for the most part, there as migrant workers. Lebanon is a great country, but it still has so many faults – one of them being a kind of cultural snobbery, where that type of music is frowned upon.
The only time that type of music got any kind of respect from the “avant garde,” was when Omar Souleyman got his material released by Sublime Frequencies. But the music had to become “cool” in the West in order for it to become “cool” in the Middle East, which is such an oxymoron.
Typically what will happen is that I will blow my voice after rehearsing for the first show, and I will be like “fuck!” because I never practice my vocals.
Do you feel that the success of an artist such as Omar Souleyman in the West instigated a degree of intrigue for people looking for similar artists who might not come with label backing?
No, not at all. If it doesn’t come with the fanfare or the hype machine, music from the Middle East just won’t fly. The music would have to have a certain, and I use this word in a negative way of course, “sophistication” in order for people to consider it to be daring art. Otherwise, it would be seen as shabby folkloric trash that is just pointless. Aside from Omar Souleyman, no other artist playing such music has been able to have a concert in Beirut and gain those kinds of audiences. I mean, artists like that are a dime a dozen; you walk into any small town and it is just littered with them. These people have regular day jobs and they just play music on the weekend to earn a little bit of extra money.
But in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, a lot of record labels will find and reissue material from various countries that normally people in other parts of the world would not have access to. And so it gets distributed, and packaged, and inserted into the music industry of the West. People then latch on because the music is presented in a very clear, concise form, and it gets a lot of attention, which is understandable because a lot of it is mind mindbogglingly amazing music!
Do your preferences feed into what you do at your recording studio in Montreal?
No, unfortunately not. But we are so fortunate in that of all the eight years we have been running the place, there have only been two or three sessions I have really not enjoyed. But it also means that there is a specific market that can afford the luxury of a) recording in a studio and b) our credentials in terms of who we are and our musical backgrounds. This is especially true of my three partners, who are in bands that have quite a fan base. I mean, I didn’t even record my own album there actually. It’s funny, I live 10 doors from the studio but I did the record in my living room.
In some ways that seems like an odd choice to make, but if you are spending your whole working day at a particular studio, perhaps it makes sense to record elsewhere. But why your living room?
Jerusalem In My Heart has been around for a while, but I have never had the intention of making a record because the project is very much about live performance. It’s not just music with visuals, it is really all about the live setting; how we cut the venue space up, how we play with the architecture of a room and present something that is very multidimensional. Reducing that to a recorded medium, is quite a compromise. But at the same time, I wanted to take this project around the world and tour with it, so the album seemed like a necessary step in making that happen.
However, I also realized that this would be limiting the life of the project. So when the opportunity with Constellation records came about, I ended up making the record in the best possible way, which was to not really think about the process too much – I just did it. This meant a regimented routine of going to bed at midnight and waking up at 4 a.m. to work on my record before going to the studio to work. So I recorded and mixed the album in about eight days, which is absurd, really. But I get into these modes of working and I just can’t stop!
Audiences across the globe will obviously react differently to whatever they see or hear depending on social norms, value systems, or even the familiarity of the language they are listening to. How do you find the audience response shifts when you play in different parts of the world?
Strangely enough, the audiences are bizarrely similar. The first time I performed in Lebanon, I was really nervous because I have a lot of friends there, a big community of artists who are just all amazing and wonderful, but they are also all very musically educated people and have similar reference points that the community in Montreal have. The guys I work with at Hotel2Tango and the people I am surrounded by here, who are in bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion etc., all the stuff that I am involved with directly or remotely bares similarity with the people in Beirut, who have the same references that the Western audience would have.
Even a lot of the stuff on Tiny Mix Tapes! I will go to Beirut and my friends there will tell me about artists that I had never heard of. I recently bought a record by an Honest John’s artist, Actress, R.I.P., and that was a recommendation from a friend in Beirut. So my friends over there have an even wider musical taste than I do. That can make performing in front of them strange because it was not as different as I had expected it to be – it was quite similar to playing in Montreal in fact.
However, in the fall we are planning a North African tour, and I hope that performing in areas where not so many people are bi-lingual or tri-lingual will be an interesting experience. Beirut is very tri-lingual; everybody speaks Arabic, English and French, for the most part. All of the lyrical content for Jerusalem In My Heart is in Arabic of course, so I was really hoping there would be a specific reaction from the audience there based on my lyrical content, but that didn’t really happen. So I hope we will get a different reaction in North Africa when we play Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia.
That leads quite conveniently into my next question in that one or two of the reviews I have seen for the album say that the vocals on Mo7it Al-Mo7it are “prayer-like”.
Oh my God, that is driving me absolutely insane.
I don’t speak Arabic, and I didn’t get that impression myself, but it was curious to see someone had posted that and I wondered what you thought about it.
Moving to Canada in 1993, was not the easiest thing in the world – I had a very difficult time adjusting after coming from a place that was so radically different from Montreal. I had a very tough time getting along with students in the school here, as it was a very racist environment. It was just after the second Gulf War, and there was so much stigma attached to being an Arab and moving to this part of the world. I saw how people cast their racism, or maybe not intentional racism, but ignorance. People project onto you what they think they understand “you” as being.
Sure, I went through the motions of being a dorky kid who slowly built an identity. But through doing this project and reading such reviews, these comments rub me in the same kind of way that those kids rubbed me back then. It’s like, “The only reference point you have is that!” It seems insane to me. I mean, 5,000 years of culture and the only thing somebody can pick up on is that it’s ‘prayer-like’? Comments like that are more than ignorant, they are unfortunate for the person who is saying them because it unveils a tide of ignorance. It’s like fine; if that’s what you see, then that’s what you see, I can’t control that, but these people need to broaden their horizons a bit. It’s like the association game of ‘Arabic + Singing = Prayer,’ which is a little unfortunate.