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Spotlight: Jerusalem in my Heart

Music
Culture

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(c) Melanie Marsman
 

To listen to the music of Jerusalem In My Heart (JIMH), the name under which Radwan Ghazi Moumneh records, is to experience a lurching, sonic dislocation. The effect is as peculiar as it is exhilarating. This is definitely Arabic music but combined with Western experimentalism.

And if you’re lucky enough to catch JIMH playing live – Moumneh is joined by the filmmaker and projection artist Charles-André Coderre – it’s clear that we are closer to an audio-visual happening than a conventional concert.

Moumneh took the name Jerusalem In My Heart in 2005 from a song recorded by the legendary Lebanese diva Fairuz in 1972. Now in her mid-eighties, she’s still singing.

Jerusalem In My Heart - Less a name, more a place

‘Fairuz is a genius, an accomplished artist and I love her,’ he says. ‘But [the band name] is more what the name evokes for me. Jerusalem is a place that I will never go to. It’s an idea, it’s in the spirit, it’s in the heart because it cannot be tangible. Being Lebanese, I cannot go there.’

Born in Beirut in 1975, he left the city as a child with his family as Lebanon’s civil war closed in upon them. They relocated to Oman, the first country that would give them a visa. ‘My parents had never even heard of Oman, but they had to get out of Beirut. It was a pretty rough start for those guys.’

He was enrolled for a period in a Hindi-speaking school, set up to educate the children of Indians working as servants in the Gulf state. In 1993, the family were given immigration papers for Canada and they left for Montreal soon after the Gulf War.

For his parents, it was a disaster. ‘They hated it. They only lasted five years before returning home.’ For Moumneh too, even though he spoke an accentless English, it wasn’t a great time to be an Arab in North America. Racism from all directions was a reminder to him that a perceived otherness could be provocative.

Speaking from Montreal, Moumneh reflects on the fissile energies produced by the clash of two otherwise exclusive musics: Arabic song and the kind of experimentalism more readily associated with Western artists.

An 'extra layer of anxiety'

‘It is difficult for an Arabic audience to connect to what I am doing. For people within oriental music, there’s no way to do so. I’m trying to bridge this. It is obvious to my ears that there is a connection between these musics.’

Western audiences he has experienced are open to foreign music, while the Arabic ones are more resistant. ‘It’s Arab expats, those living abroad, who get it.’

Of the three albums he has recorded only If He Dies, If If If If If If (2015) supplies any English-language lyrics. The first album, Mo7it Al-Mo7it (2013) doesn't’t and nor does JIMH’s new album, Daqa’iq Tudaiq (‘Minutes that Bother’), which is released in October.

This deliberate refusal to be understood at a literal level initially caused some concern at Constellation, the record label for which JIMH records. ‘It’s obviously something that we have had to think about and it comes up in conversation,’ he says, pointing out that many world music albums do not provide translations of their lyrics and these choices are not often challenged. However, because JIMH sings in Arabic and because the band name is so striking, there is this ‘extra layer of anxiety’.

For the new album JIMH was augmented by a large team of professional musicians, recording over three days in a rented palace in Beirut. ‘We did it all live. It was a wonderful experience,’ he recalls.

Complex sonic textures

The end result is a complex, yet lush, accumulation of language and sonic textures designed to transcend the limits of language and communicate at a level that is direct and unhindered. But beneath the carapace of swooping chromatics and yearning voices are scratchy textures and a sense of peril. ‘The bigger theme for this record was the immediate crisis of the refugees. The humanitarian crisis, this disaster – what else can you call it? It’s what’s happening to the Iraqi and Syrian civilians who are escaping the intentional insanity in their countries. Lebanon is an insane place to be right now, even more so than ever, because of the influx of refugees.’

It is a dislocation of appalling proportions, one whose inheritance will take many decades to work out. Daqa’iq Tudaiq is perhaps a revelation of sorrow that goes beyond all language – with JIMH providing an articulate, angry and poetic voice for the mess we’re in.

New Internationalist issue 515 magazine cover This article is from the September-October 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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