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.
But surely that will be a primary point of contact or comparison for a lot of people in the West, won’t it?
Well thankfully, I’m really not a person who is affected by reviews. For all of the pieces of music I have worked on, I have never really gotten a good review with my other projects. I’m quite immune to it actually, like it doesn’t bug me like it bugs a lot of people. But it does bug me that people are saying things like that in the context of a positive review. I haven’t read a bad review of Mo7it Al-Mo7it, so people are saying those things in a positive way, but it just seems so embarrassing for that person. They don’t realize how embarrassing it is for them to be saying that – it’s like the first impression that they get, and that’s all they are throwing back at me?
It will be interesting finding out how people relate to your record in a place like Morocco. The majority of my personal experiences with Arabic music come from Morocco after spending a fair bit of time there. I met a number of people who were interested in looking back at traditional Arabic music and putting a contemporary spin on it, just because they seem to be getting sick of the hip-hop culture coming over from the States. Western music was becoming quite tiresome, so they had the idea of looking back at more folk-like sounds, which is similar to what you have done I suppose. Only with your angle, you have gone with that, distorted-cassette tape aesthetic.
Sure that’s right, it’s all about thinking about where the project naturally wants to go with this music. Of course, none of the album is recorded on a cassette, it is all recorded on a soundcard and a laptop with some headphones. So there was no real studio wizardry, it was all done with an analog synth, a buzuq, and an SM57. It was all accomplished with a little effects box and a couple of pedals, which was really straight forward, there was nothing overly intellectual about the process. I think that was also a little weird reaction to my job, which is all about over intellectualizing the process and spending such a long time going over every detail with a fine tooth comb.
The show can’t exist without the visuals and vice-versa. It is like this marriage of sight, sound, and space together to create a performance. That’s why making a record was such a compromise, because you can’t represent all of that on a piece of vinyl.”
The whole recording process is interesting though, particularly because you said before that when you went over to Canada, you didn’t have a musical background, which doesn’t quite fit in with how trained the vocals sound.
Yeah, that was just me and a vocoder! I was talking to the third member of Jerusalem In My Heart, who lives in Paris, about when he comes to Montreal for the album release and how that will fit in with the singing. 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. It’s actually the exact opposite of what you said, there was no training. And to an Arab who knows traditional Arabic music and traditional form, I know that those audiences will see the faults in my work for sure. Having said that, I don’t see them as faults, I see them more as notes that I don’t have the skill to attain. I can’t sing quarter-tones very well, at least not well enough to present of a record. I can play them on instruments but not sing them, so that is where there is a shortfall. I did not present all of the ideas that I wanted to present, but that is just because of the limitations that exist with what I can do.
But that fits kind of nicely with the crumbling style of the music that surrounds the vocals, doesn’t it?
Exactly! You take your weaknesses and turn them into strengths.
So how important is the experimental, electronic edge to your sound in contrast to the Arabic vocals?
When people ask broad questions about the project, I just say it’s experimental contemporary Arabic music, because a lot of it actually starts out with electronics. The synths and the drone-based stuff are a starting point, and then from there I add the traditional instruments. I am really big into electronic music. I really love my synths, and twiddling knobs, and making funny sounds. It is a big part of what I enjoy even though it is not necessarily what I do live. So that aspect of it is very present and I hope this will appeal to contemporary electronic artists. It is very difficult for me to talk about because I aspire for the album to be a relevant document of contemporary music, no matter from where in the world.
So to go back to the very basics of the project, where did the name come from?
The name comes from a famous Lebanese singer named Fairuz. She is the international music export of Lebanon; a singer who has done a great deal of amazing material. She started in the late 50s before making a record during the civil war called “Jerusalem In My heart,” which was a huge statement given the political climate in Lebanon at the time. There were so many different factions then, who, generally speaking consisted of a Christian right that was very much against the Palestinian presence in the country, and the Muslim left in support of the Palestinian presence. Fairuz, being a Christian, put out this record “Jerusalem in my Heart,” which a lot of people understood as a political statement due to the situation. For me, it is an interesting way of representing how the political climate looked in Lebanon then and how it remains to be now. Her statement was very much as a Christian referring to Jerusalem as being the home for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, at a time when there was so much confusion over religion, identity, and allegiance. It was a very elegant way of addressing the problem, simply by naming her album “Jerusalem in My Heart.” I thought that was beautiful and I took the idea for the project.
How do you think that name shapes, if at all, the demographic of your audience, particularly in the West?
The project has gone through so many stages of turmoil because of both the name and the imagery that I have used in the past. For every performance in Montreal, there would always be a poster that was modeled after the propaganda posters that were distributed in Lebanon throughout the 70s and the 80s between all of the different factions. A lot of them were just stellar in design, they had very intelligent wording and were just beautiful images. I would play with those styles for our posters, which could be seen as provocative, but that wasn’t really the intention behind them. The posters were all in Arabic and, knowing my neighborhood in Montreal, I knew that nobody could read them. So I would fashion the design, silkscreen the posters and use certain imagery that would make people question what they were all about. I would then distribute them knowing that nobody could read them.
But often people would attack the project as being anti-Semitic or as having questionable motifs. One of our venues even received a letter from a “multi-faith tolerant society,” [which] accused the project as being racist, anti-Semitic, and completely ignorant of the workings of Jerusalem and the state of Israel. That ends up showing what people’s biases and ignorance’s are in a very visceral way; it shows the sorts of dots that people immediately connect.
How does it make you feel then when someone attacks you like that, and says the project is anti-Semitic?
Well I’m a boxer, so I don’t back down from a fight, and I back up everything that I do with all of my being. Plus, it is such an easy conversation to have with someone who would come up to me and say something like, “Your project is anti-Semitic.” It’s like, well, “You are an idiot!” Like right off the bat, that person’s ignorance has blinded them.
If it doesn’t come with the fanfare or the hype machine, music from the Middle East just won’t fly.
And what about your partners then, you are not all from Lebanon, are you?
We are quite a funny trio actually. Malena Szlam is the visual artists and makes up one third of the project. She is Chilean and has lived in Canada for eight years. And Jérémie Regnier is the third member, he is Parisian. I met him in Beirut because he lived there for a while about 10 years ago. So yeah, Malena is the one who has tamed the wild horse. For her, things have to have a lot more of a substantial meaning, and I really have to work hard to convince her ‘why’ we should do something in a certain way. But of course, she is very open-minded and supports all of these ideas we have – she is a very intelligent woman and understands the need for such political and social commentary without being too full-on.
How important is the visual component within the project?
All of the visuals that we do are integral to the music. The show can’t exist without the visuals and vice-versa. It is like this marriage of sight, sound, and space together to create a performance. That’s why making a record was such a compromise, because you can’t represent all of that on a piece of vinyl. The process itself starts with us creating music and film loops, which Malena shoots and processes. The show will exist of about 40-50 loops that she will use, and so we try and do as much homework as possible before getting to a venue to understand the space and the architecture. Once we get there, we just shoot light into the room, hang up multiple screens and decide how we are going to break up the space and present. We hang anywhere between four and nine screens, depending on the space, and from there, we decide where the musicians will be and how we are going to deal with the sonic aspect of it.
The title of the album translates as ‘Ocean of the Ocean.’ Can you explain what that means?
Yes, it is the title of an encyclopedia that was written in the mid 19th century called, “Mohit Al-Mohit,” and that can be translated into ‘the circumference of the ocean,’ but I chose to read it as ‘ocean of the ocean.’
And I read that the numbers are used represent Arabic phone texting in the title and the tracks, is that right?
Yeah, there was a big part of me that wanted to date the record. I love dated art. I really like looking at something and knowing when it is from without reading any credits. The numbers were a way of demarcating that this is very much a product of this generation [wherein] people communicate in Lebanon using English text phones. In order to do that, you use certain numbers to represent sounds in Arabic that do not exist in English, like the ‘7’ on the title is like a very heavy ‘h,’ but you don’t have that sound in English so people write the number ‘7’ to represent that when they text each other because that number looks like the letter in Arabic that would represent that sound.
Had all of these songs been performed live at shows, or are these pieces you wrote specifically to fit within that premise on the album?
The first song on the record was a song I used to play a very long time ago, and that is a cover actually. It’s a poem that has been done and redone by so many different artists over the years and this is just my version of it – so that is the only one that was ever presented live before the recording. After the album was made, we decided that we are going to play most of those tracks live. However, there are two acoustic pieces on the record, which were recorded at a friend’s house. We were improvising together one evening, and those tracks were embarrassingly recorded on an iPhone. I just used my mobile to record them because I thought it would be good to record at the time! I wanted to make sure I documented anything substantial that came out of the session, and the recordings were good enough to make it to the album. So those one’s we can’t really do live, but all of the electronic stuff does make it to the show.
It’s interesting that you say “embarrassingly” recorded on an iPhone though. Do you think there is a stigma attached to recording on certain pieces of equipment, particularly when they are so wide-spread and accessible?
Well, I say embarrassing for two reasons; one because I just plugged a product, which is insane. And two, because everybody knows the sorts of aesthetics I am drawn to, and I don’t want it to seem like that was the idea all along; to record those tracks on my iPhone in the style of an awesome lo-fi K Records kind of thing. It’s not like that at all. We were drunk at the time and I thought, if I don’t record this then I am going to forget it all by tomorrow morning. What did I have? A stupid smart phone. So I just turned it on and hit record and left it on the table. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, it could have been anything – if I would have had a $15,000 telefunken mic, it would still have sounded exactly the same to me.
How do you think the record will be received in Beirut?
I have a feeling it is going to go down well. A lot of the content in there is lyrically very strong, in relation to what I want to express. It is a conceptual record in some respects, and it definitely outlines a journey from beginning to end; my mind and my personal views and how I see the world. But, consciously or subconsciously, I think people will connect to it. I have sent it to a couple of friends and the feedback I have got has been extremely positive.
Would you say there is a high degree of importance to being able to understand the lyrical content? Obviously, like with any record, there is going to be a different reaction from people who don’t speak the lingo. The difference between this and any other release though is that it is pitched at a niche market almost, to people with a keen interest in electronic music and who are probably based in the West.
I listen to so much music in languages that I have no idea what is being said, and to me it is so not important that I don’t understand the content. However, of course the lyrics are still a huge part of this project, and that is what I spent the most time on; refining the lyrical content. But I would say 90% of the people who are going to consume this record are going to be non-Arabic speakers, because of the network that I am plugged into and the record label that I am on – it’s just anglophilia everywhere.
I know that the record stands on its own without necessarily understanding the meanings of the words. I know there is enough heart and soul poured into each track, which is very emotional. Even by not necessarily being able to identify words within the music, there is definitely a human connection that can be made, just by hearing the emotion that comes through the music.