After a supposed acceleration in the virtual clash of civilizations, is it possible for those born and bred in the West to admire Middle Eastern digital art, particularly musical composition, without instinctively associating it with religion or ideology? I would strongly argue that not only is it possible, but that it’s essential in broadening the perspectives of individual intent while exploring art forms from that, or any other, part of the world. The web allows us to peruse new material in a way that doesn’t require physically having to rummage the depths of Iranian bazaars or Moroccan souks in order to discover new music (though these experiences remain unparalleled by anything virtual, of course), while allowing for a library of alphabetic scripts to crop up in the process. Yes, I included a couple of “other” musicians in Arabic, partly because it makes their work easier to access via online search, the results of which demonstrate that such music can surely be appreciated by a listener, unfamiliar with the languages used, without referring to each piece as “prayer-like.” The songs embody aspects of the personal, the dramatic, the astoundingly mundane, all in a context that is quite possibly uncharted — and they are also comparable to the performers I imagine Radwan Ghazi Moumneh came across while listening to cassette tapes in market places around the Middle East. Those tapes laid the foundations for this astonishing record, the first by Jerusalem In My Heart, which also builds on the exchange between Arabic and digital communication on Anglicized hardware; the numbers in Mo7it Al-Mo7it represent phonetic sounds not present in English and are therefore signified in text messages between speakers of Arabic through numerical form.
This lies at the very core of the act at hand. Exposing a tendency for cultural interplay is what makes Jerusalem In My Heart such a vibrant live outfit. They have been performing for eight years as a trio consisting of Moumneh, Malena Szlam Salazar, and Jérémie Regnier — artists from Lebanon, Chile, and France, respectively. The project is a cross-pollination of lights, music, visuals, and experimentation that comes together in what has previously been referred to as an “immersive, visual and theatrical experience.” Since the group’s inception, collective output has hinged on this startling exchange of ideas and mediums that bombard the senses, not only in presentation, but in a contemporary approach to folkloric and traditional Arabic music. Dispensing these aspirations onto a single release was always going to be a tricky business, as the enterprise consequentially forgoes some of its major attributes. However, the resulting album, which is comprised of Moumneh’s home recordings, brings to the fore a deeply penetrating realization as he focuses creative energy purely on songwriting and structure — this while incorporating those Syrian cassette aesthetics alongside some extraordinary buzuk renditions.
Vocals remain a major pulling factor here, the aptitude of which involves pursuing a number of long-established styles with astonishing effect; they sound remarkable, at least to an ear untrained in classical Arabic scores. My assumption is that the prevalent critical comparisons to prayer come from misfired perceptions of the lyrics on tracks such as “Amanem,” which opens with an ambient frequency shift that flows into a chanting of the track title. Misinterpretation probably spawns from the meditative, peaceful, and welcoming form the words take; it’s an agreeable holler belted with such gusto, but why should it automatically be associated with any religious intent? Especially when the factors that make this music so spectacular involve the blending of traditional techniques with experimental electronic forms and not necessarily the content of the lyrics themselves. “3anzah Jarbanah” accomplishes this remarkable feat through a three-minute a cappella introduction composed solely of reverberated vocals, which launches into a static drone seizure of sorts. The outcome is utterly enthralling, the intensity of the singer’s range bound up against a background of sand-blasted synths is an absolute delight, regardless of any hasty theological comparison.
That lo-fi resonance retains the most appeal on “Yudaghdegh al-ra3ey wala al-ghanam,” where a pulsating synth pattern layers the opening verse while Moumneh’s voice soars above low frequency tonal fuzz before melting into a gorgeous, impassioned crawl. It’s one of the shortest songs on the album, but it’s presence is absolutely standout — the English translation reads “He titillates the shepherd, but not the sheep…,” which provides little indication as to what the song is about, but that hardly matters. In fact, the translation adds an even thicker layer to the unknowable for those unversed in Arabic, which plays on any superficial urgency while the most resonant thrill comes in lacing these vocal tones with an intense dosage of reverb.
These attributes are exercised to a lesser extent on three instrumental tracks, which deploy ravenous execution on the buzuk. During our recent interview with Moumneh, he mentioned recording two of these numbers on his iPhone. They are long, acoustic amblings that are poignant and calm. Birds tweet and flutter over the top of tender strings, which sound sharp and refined, a stark contradiction to the saturated sonic boom of surrounding material — both “3andalib al-furat” and “Ya dam3et el-ein 3” seem as though they were played in a sun-drenched courtyard in some far-flung location, instead of at a mate’s house after a few drinks. In spite of the setting they were recorded in, these pieces allow for insight into an alternate segment of the Lebanese artistic spectrum while once again exposing the looming air of contrast; on this occasion it comes nestled between seemingly polished instrumentation and the harsh electronics of “Koll lil-mali7ati fi al-khimar al-aswadi,” an instantly captivating opener whose richness is only surpassed by the compositional subtleties that permeate throughout. This only reinforces the notion that when opposing forces meet, “clash” need not be the most fitting description; Mo7it Al-Mo7it constitutes a gentle merger, a meeting of ideas that sets the pace for a creative partnership both deep-rooted and fruitful — a daring kick-start for an act brimming with promise.