Ink From The Eyes: Jerusalem In My Heart Interviewed

Lebanese-born Montreal-based musician Radwan Ghazi Moumneh tells Lottie Brazier about the evolution of his project combining electronics with traditional Arabic instruments and documenting a changing Beirut on record

Jerusalem In My Heart is the decade-long audiovisual project based around the Montreal-based musician Radwan Ghazi Moumneh. Making use of traditional Levantine instruments from Syria and Lebanon, Moumneh meshes them with 21st-century influences and exploratory production techniques, "putting them in a current, ‘new music’ context", as he says. While this has so far produced two albums, including this year’s excellent If He Dies, If If If If If If, JIMH has primarily evolved through live work, where visual contributions – photographs, rephotographs, films, images, loops, multi-screen light installations – from his bandmate Charles-André Coderre combine with the music. "When I’m onstage I’m very much in the midst of the visuals," Moumneh explains. "There’s one track where I’m literally playing no instrument at all, it’s just me doing a performance while these sequenced synthesisers are blaring through the PA. That’s a pretty quick resumé of what our show currently is right now."

Moumneh’s talking about all this over a Skype call from the middle of Jerusalem In My Heart’s current run of dates with Suuns and is enduring his tour fatigue with a compensatory good humour. The level of multitasking he’s talking about seems incomprehensible to me, but it’s not new to him, having worked on other collaborative projects – with Suuns and Constellation Records labelmate Eric Chenaux – as well as releasing JIMH’s debut, Mo7it Al-Mo7it from 2013, all within the last three years. Unlike artists who hole themselves up for a few months to work in solitude, it’s clear that Moumneh thrives on working with others, as an aid to his creative process. This would also make a good case for his equally impressive portfolio as an engineer and producer, including work with Matana Roberts and Ought.

He exudes a restlessness and urgency to seek out inspiration, which could be put down in part to his disrupted formative years, born in Beirut in 1975 during the Lebanese civil war before moving to Montreal in the ’90s. While his parents returned to Lebanon after the war ended, Moumneh remained in Canada to pursue music. However, he also informs me that it’s really Beirut that provides the inspiration for his work, including plans to adapt a Lebanese history book for film with his wife. "I’ll be going there after all this touring," he says. "I’ll hop on a plane and I’ll be immediately in Beirut for the entire winter."

How did you choose the titles on If He Dies, If If If If If If?

Radwan Ghazi Moumneh: Well, the title of the album came from a graffito that I saw in an old abandoned building in Beirut. It’s actually quite common to see these old, very beautiful historic houses that are being demolished to build more efficient, more profit-generating, modern… really ugly structures, because old Lebanese architecture’s all very high-ceilinged houses, houses with very big rooms – not very efficient for a city I guess. So it’s really sad that there are all these beautiful, beautiful buildings that are being torn down. This building, or a mansion I should say, has been there forever – ever since I can remember. It’s sort of half-demolished, I think some of it must have been destroyed during the civil war and has just been left and is now in the process of being taken down. So we snuck into the building just to check it out because usually there are always very beautiful textures, tiles, paintwork on the walls, all these textures we like to film for our show.

There was this very morbid kind of graffito where somebody wrote: "If he dies, if if if if if if". And we filmed that – I just thought that was such an evocative phrase, so I decided to use it for the record. I took that phrase and build around it the song of the same name on the record. The "he" here represents the patriarchal, authoritative figure that stands in Lebanese political society and the "if" questions that: if that protector, if he were to die, to disappear, what would happen? Because Lebanon is very much a clan system – all of our religious sects are clans and all of these clans have leaders, and all of these leaders are very crooked, crooked men. All for the most part involved in the civil war – a lot of them have done some pretty insane things. And they remain our leaders and people are very willing to have these people remain in power. It’s the same faces, the same names that have been around since the early ’70s. It’s quite sad.

So there’s that, and the rest of the songs kind of reference in vague, abstract ways the current climate in Lebanon. All of them, except for two: ‘A Granular Buzuk’ and ‘2asmar Sa7ar’. The title of ‘A Granular Buzuk’ was an accident. I was recording with my friend Sharif Sehnaoui, who is a Lebanese musician, and we were trying to think of a ‘granular’ synthesis treatment to the buzuk, which is all the electronics that you hear here. And we were thinking – how would you describe this treatment in Arabic? Because this word doesn’t exist for us, we Google Translated it and the word that came out was ‘muhabbib’ which straight-up means ‘granular’. But if you read it without the accents then it’s ‘habibi’ which means ‘my love’. So in Arabic I left it as "my lover’s buzuk". I intentionally omitted the accent, so if anyone looked at it they would be able to say ‘My Habibi’s Buzuk’. But if you read it in the English title it would be ‘A Granular Buzuk’. And the other one really has no relation to politics! It’s ‘2asmar Sa7ar’ which means "the brown one cast a spell", and it’s a bit of a cheeky dedication to my wife. The other ones are all related to the theme of the album. ‘Qala Li Kafa Kafa Kafa Kafa Kafa Kafa: it means "to me he said enough enough enough enough enough enough" and is sort of mirroring that opening track – you pose this question and then you get the answer of, "Enough! This is really enough. This is as far as we can take it."

Clearly a lot of thought has gone into the packaging of this album as well. On the back cover of the CD copy, there’s a very faded, faint photograph of children running along a beach that I wanted to ask about.

RGM: I don’t know if you remember, it was in the news during the last Gaza war, this is the famous photo of the three children who were playing football on the beach and were bombed by a navy ship. They were killed. And this is a cellphone photo taken by a journalist called Trevor Barnes. He took the photo, and this was literally moments before these kids were just blown to bits. It was sort of a typical – and I say that word with a heavy heart – a typical scenario of what goes on in that extremely dirty war that Israel has with Palestinians, especially on Gaza. And then it came out from intelligence that there had been rockets launched from that location and that they were terrorists. You have this cold, hard picture of three children playing soccer on a beach, yet of course the military will deny that was the case and also will say that they will open a file investigating that. Nothing ever happens, obviously, so I wanted to at least give these children a little contribution. To make them exist outside of that world, as a disputed piece of news. So we took that picture – the original image is a very cheap, pixellated cellphone picture, just taken straight off of Twitter. Charles rephotographed and then chemically treated the picture. It’s a very emotional dedication to these three children. And their names are in the CD.

Coming back again to the musical content of the album, could you tell me about the buzuk and how it’s used on ‘A Granular Buzuk’?

RGM: The buzuk is a very lute-like instrument that is from Syria and Lebanon. It’s a Levantine instrument, a shepherd’s instrument. Not a very popular one, but it’s the instrument I play. And the whole project of Jerusalem In My Heart is based around taking these traditional elements of music and changing and altering them – putting them in a current, ‘new music’ context. That track, I was happy with it in particular because I just improvised on the buzuk – a very straight improv. And then I took that track and just cut it up and cut it up and manipulated it until we came up with this really intense ‘granular’ texture to the track. On top of that, I asked a friend who plays prepared guitar – he’s quite an amazing musician. He did an improv to my improv. I just put a few microphones in, we did one part of it and he played over. He prepared his guitar by putting a bunch of objects into it and of course started playing it. We merged these two elements together and mixed it, and by doing this we gave it this beautiful texture. The song title ‘A Granular Buzuk’ evokes this beautiful image.

What about the other recording techniques that you’ve been using on the album?

RGM: I own a recording studio in Montreal called Hotel2Tango. It’s a very popular studio, having been for quite a while. I own it with three other guys, all musicians, all very talented engineers and producers. We have access to this massive hi-tech facility, but for this record I wanted to work in very odd spaces where I feel more comfortable. So a lot of the record was recorded in Beirut and then worked on in Montreal. And I don’t do anything complicated, it’s very much a simple capturing of what’s happening – it’s usually just me with a soundcard in a space that I like, with one or two microphones. I spend so much time conceptualising it that when it comes to the execution of recording the tracks, it’s actually very, very quick. It’s all there in my head, there’s very little experimentation going on when I record. To me it’s a task and I have to do it. I just get it out the way. I also like recording on the beach in Lebanon, that’s usually my favourite spot for recording stuff. I’ll take part of a recorder and improvise something on the buzuk while I’m there. It’s always very pleasurable – that with a glass of arak! Off you go!

Would you say that the music that you’ve been making on your most recent album is at all comparable to the stuff you do live? Are they separate projects or are they quite closely related?

RGM: It’s very separate. Because live, you come and you see what Charles is doing to me onstage and what I am doing to him on his little stage. And that is the show for me. Of course, that represented on a vinyl record is impossible. So they end up being very separate things – they are very different kinds of thing. So when you come to the show it’s not about the music so much, it’s about the experience, because it’s a very sensorial experience; your eyes and ears are very stimulated in tandem. When I perform I’m completely in the dark, there are zero lights, absolutely no light on the stage at all. We’re just using 100 per cent the illumination from the projectors and that’s what lights up the stage.

You’ve also collaborated with Suuns.

RGM: We collaborated with them a few years ago, but the album with them only came out earlier this year. We got together three years ago in a rehearsal space with a bunch of material, but we also wanted to see if we could make something happen there. There was no intention of doing anything with it, not even recording it. We did end up documenting the seven days that we spent working on it.

We were just going to do a little four or five-day run last November, and then we said, "Let’s just press about 80 to 100 copies of this on vinyl". Just a self-released thing, to sell at the shows. Something that we didn’t want to have more of a life than that. Because we didn’t figure that it would garner that much interest. But then Secretly Canadian really liked it and wanted to put it out as an actual release. So out it came as a release, and here we find ourselves touring for it! Two tours in the fall, which is great. It’s fun that people find this collaboration interesting. I think it’s got some good reviews and people are very much into it. Ben [Shemie], the singer of Suuns, said something about this in an interview and I thought that this sums it up so perfectly: it’s not so much that he sees it as a collaboration between two projects, but that it’s more of a work by five people together. It’s very much so that five identities come out on that record.

Are there any other projects that you’re now working on alongside this?

RGM: Not really, but there is one record that I put out with one of my dearest friends – the record came out about two years ago now, on a very small record club called Grapefruit Records, from the States. It’s a very limited run vinyl fan club, where you have a membership and you get these records. And we worked on a collaboration with Eric Chenaux. He’s one of my favourites – on Constellation Records. We worked on this record, and I have to tell you, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever worked on. I’m very proud of it, but unfortunately it exists in such a limited scope. So I’m hoping that it can find a home on a label in order to make it available for everybody. Because it’s something that I’m so damn proud of, yet nobody has ever heard of it. It’s called The Sentimental Moves. It’s mostly instrumental, except for one track that has a small bit of vocals. We worked on that record long distance.

Besides that I can’t really say there are any projects, except for a project that I’m working on with my wife. It’s straight-up a band, just the two of us. Her name is Alexei Perry Cox – she was in Handsome Furs. Her and I have been working on a music project together. We did one show in Montreal as a test, and it went absolutely fantastically.

Do you see Jerusalem In My Heart as something that suits your needs now, something that you might eventually move on from?

RGM: No – oddly enough this project has existed for about ten years. I can see this lasting for a while, and I do it at my own pace. It’s on the best label in the world, Constellation Records, they are my dear friends and they don’t put any pressure on the project. It really goes at its own pace; they’re the biggest supporters of the project, which means that I always have this home for it here.

We don’t get massive crowds; it remains a very weird project. But there’s always an exchange of very heavy emotion – people get to really connect with what the project symbolises to them. Because, nine times out of ten, there’s not a single Arabic speaker in the room. People still connect with the emotion and they feel ‘the message’.

If He Dies, If If If If If If is out now on Constellation Records. Jerusalem In My Heart and Suuns play Het Depot in Leuven, Belgium tonight, before heading to Oslo in London tomorrow and Salon IKSV in Istanbul, Turkey on November 28; for full details and tickets, head here

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