Jerusalem In My Heart // Old Arabic Cassettes in My Memories

My childhood was spent in the Bay Area in California in the 80’s and 90’s. As kids, my brothers and I were constantly being shuffled around in our family’s station wagon, whether it be to visit relatives, accompany our parents to their organizing meetings, go to our soccer games, etc. More often than not, it was my mother who was behind the wheel and let it be known that this woman exercised a strict dictatorship of the music that got played on these rides.

On our family’s summer trips to Ramallah and Amman, my mom would arrive back to the States with half a suitcase full of arabic music cassettes, which is funny because compact discs were most definitely a common amenity in the early 90’s. These tapes soundtracked every excursion we took for much of my childhood. Some tapes were more pop and others sounded ancient but to my young ears, they all sounded the same. Take one part: overly emotive singer and another part: classical ensemble and there you have it – just some boring music from the balad (homeland) that my mom loved to sing along to in the car. And she would sing along to every word of every tape, attempting to match the singer at every acrobatic juncture, holding every note in what seemed like perfect time. Occasionally, she would try to get a rise out of my brothers and I by clapping along and encouraging the entire car to do the same; a tactic my brothers and I eventually weaponized to troll one another.

If I had to guess, I suspect these were tapes were mostly from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan. It took close to 30 years for me to ask myself, “what ever happened to all those tapes? They gotta be in storage somewhere”.

Jerusalem In My Heart is the audio/visual project of Radwan Ghazi Moumneh (audio) and Charles-André Coderre (video). Daqa’iq Tudaiq is JIMH’s third album and while I can’t speak much to the video component of the project (a live function of JIMH), the album art pairs seamlessly with Coderre’s heavily treated archival photos, sourced from the Arab Image Foundation. JIMH release music via Constellation Records, a hub for Montreal-based experimental musicians, most notably the Godspeed You! Black Emperor crew and their associates. Radwan of JIMH is also co-owner and engineer at the label-adjacent and famed hotel2tango studio.

Daqa’iq Tudaiq commences with what is undoubtedly the heart of the record: an interpretation of the classic, “Ya Garat Al Wadi”, written by iconic Egyptian composer, Mohammad Abdel Wahab. JIMH and arab avantgarde mainstay, Sam Shalabi assembled a 15-piece orchestra in Beirut to perform and record this fluid and morphing, four-part suite. Moumneh re-titles Wahab’s composition, “Wa Ta’atalat Loughat Al Kalam” (The Language Of Speech Has Broke Down).

The first part of this 20 minute piece showcases the showstopping chops, grace, and majesty of the orchestra assembled here. The playing is harmonious and seemingly in homage to the beauty of classical arabic ensembles music and especially Mohammad Abdel Wahab’s melodic briliance. Moumneh takes center stage and shows himself to be a measured, faithful singer; fully capable of leading the melodies, as the band maneuvers through dexterous motifs and responses. Halfway through part one, electronic manipulations begin to color Mounmeh’s vocals, from echoes to warbling, almost trembling effect. The effect is as if the music is cutting out, possibly a nod to arabic cassette culture and the janky electronics they likely were played through.

By the time part three kicks into gear, the rhythm has slowed to a crawl and the piece is beset by droning santoor and electronics – a psychedelic respite that might be my favorite part of the piece. Following the hazy break, the ensemble springs back to life for a needed run-through of the piece’s hypnotic melodies before reaching the finale.

Taken as a whole, JIMH channel a deep felt adoration for this rich, timeless music. Just consider the feat of assembling a 15-piece classical arabic orchestra, arranging and reinterpreting this beloved composition, and performing it in the tradition of the greats. All devotional acts seek to preserve the DNA of what is being worshiped. JIMH accomplish that with a healthy and respectful approach to tinkering around the edges of tradition.

The second phase of Daqa’iq Tudaiq showcases Mounmeh’s solo experiments with sound and texture. “Bein Ithnein” sounds like Cluster or Silver Apples discovering loops in Cairo. “Thahab, Mish Roujou’, Thahab” is a truly bizarre vocal-centered piece comprised of an eastern scale incantation that has been warped to something of a demonic effect. We also get “Layali Al-Rast”, an effect-treated buzuk jam that weaves through scales and dexterous runs without sounding repetitive or boastful.

Maybe my mother’s cassettes prepped me for Daqa’iq Tudaiq. Maybe this shit is just in my blood. I have no idea. But this is clearly music that is deliberate in its approaches to referencing honored traditions and tweaking things along the way. However I got to the point where sounds from my personal past (and my culture’s past) matched up with the weird stuff I gravitate to, I’m thankful for it because it’s not often that an experimental record takes me back in time like that.

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