Look up any image of Radwan Ghazi Moumneh and you’d likely see him donning some form of shades. I ready my phone call with Moumneh, I’m curious what he looks like so I search up for his photo online. As the phone rings and he eventually picks up, I thought about sharing my observation with him. I wondered if he had shades on as we spoke. I couldn’t picture him without it. I don’t ask, instead, I’m caught in his voice and in our conversation. Something he said later in our chat about cracking open a proverbial door for his audiences during performances and allowing them to make up their own experience resonates with the shades’ visual obstruction. With his now ten-plus years project Jerusalem In My Heart (JIMH), what Moumneh offers to audiences eludes all prescriptions. You come at it from where you are at and meet it how you see fit. Even as personal and political as what he results with maybe, Moumneh is merely a messenger.
At the time of our conversation, it was in between tours and Moumneh was back in his Montreal home to rest up and arrange for the next outing. ‘The baby is awake and might join us at a certain point during this’, he advises me. On top of being a world-traveling artist/musician/organizer, the father of two also co-runs the recording studio Hotel2Tango which hosts a long line of artists including Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Born in Beirut and relocating with his family to Montreal in his later teens, he began his primary creative outlet JIMH as of 2005 with a spirit for experimentation. He wanted to see where he could take the Arabic music he was hearing back in Lebanon and within the walls of his second home in Canada. What would a cross-cultural dialogue sound or feel like?
From its inception, it has always been a performance-centered project. A live ‘film performance’, Moumneh describes. It is also often site-responsive—enacting the architecture of the space and generating an immersive installation through their performances. Over the years, the project has been a revolving door for fellow artists to contribute and collaborate; either sonically, visually, or otherwise. Each performance took on its own character, never emulating what came before. It wasn’t until in 2013 when the idea for object-making was considered. The then three-piece group would release their first studio recording full-length Mo7it Al-Mo7it. It came as a way to not only immortalize the previously ephemeral work they were doing but to reach a wider audience who might have access to their live performances. A few years later, they followed up with the beautifully textured and buoyant If He Dies, If If If If If If. An evocative album title he stumbled across on a graffito during the recording process in Beirut. He re-contextualized this found piece of text as what if the patriarchy (‘the protectors’), which dominates in all the sub-clans Lebanon contains, disappears? This thought became the backbone for the tracks the intricately mapped album holds. Just last year, they (now a duo with filmmaker Charles André Coderre) released their third audiovisual project Daqa'iq Tudaiq--another impressionistic and inexplicably touching contribution to JIMH’s expanding catalogue. Through the pre-performance and arranging of the records. They share creative duties in for the visuals, sound and installation design for the performances. The name for their project references a record by Lebanese singer, Fairuz. It is a poetic point to the political climate in Lebanon at the time the record was made. Jerusalem remains a place inaccessible to the Lebanese and so it continues to be a place that exists only in the heart and in the mind.
In my conversation with Moumneh, he speaks passionately and candidly about his persistence to create despite the learning curve he continues to overcome with his voice and the other instruments he utilizes to materialize what he envisions. Among other talking points, we also get into the beginnings of his creative pursuits, his impetus for them, and what the future can look for JIMH.
the voice felt like the most immediate and personal tool for communicating. I wanted to communicate with emotion through language while consciously aware that the vast majority of audiences might not understand what I’m saying. And that, to me, is part of the communication challenge, communicating emotion that way. That’s why I exclusively sing in Arabic.
Let's start way back. I’ve been thinking about how you came to form the sound that you have and how you arrange your music, how you project your voice. I read that you came to Canada when you were a teenager and so you spent the majority of your late teens and early twenties in Canada, and I was wondering how you were able to still latch onto music coming from Lebanon as opposed to being influenced by say, Canada or whatever sounds that you were hearing here at an early time.
When we moved here I got into a lot of punk music, a lot of seventies and eighties punk music. Maybe that didn’t musically form a direction but definitely added to my cerebral direction. It got me interested in exploring middle eastern structure and form. It got me thinking about how to incorporate it into sort of a more contemporary or modern composition stemmed from that idea of merging these two worlds together. My ears would always hear certain similarities. I’d be connecting certain thoughts in my head and I thought it would be interesting to explore that, to see if that could yield something interesting or worth doing.
What was your access to music from the Middle East in Montréal?
Well, my parents, both of them don’t speak either English or French so when we moved here they were immigrants that were trying to make sense of living here, they felt so alienated and so foreign here. Within the walls of our household, it was very much like we were back home, very much Lebanese. It wasn’t something they were trying to do, it was just all they knew. They didn’t stick around for very long. Five or six years and they were like: ‘oh okay, we don’t fit here, we don’t fit in at all, so they moved back’. They really didn’t like it here at all. They never integrated, they didn’t pick up a single French word when they here even though we were living in an exclusively French part of the city and their English is so broken, so they just couldn’t connect to anything culturally here. It was also at a time when Quebec was, as it is currently, sky-high Islamophobia, and referendum had just come and gone and it was quite difficult for them to feel comfortable here. All that maintained a very strong cultural identity that didn’t move, didn’t change; we were the same household we were in the Middle East.
That’s not the typical immigrant story, typically people change a lot…
Yeah, we changed, like, zero. They were not interested in that whole thing, which I think is fantastic for their children, it formed our identities. I don’t think my parents were that conscious they were doing that but definitely as a result of that their four children have...actually they all returned, I was the only one who stayed. In turn, now I have two children and with both of them, I speak to them exclusively in Arabic because I want that aspect of their culture, our culture, in the household.
That’s so nice. When they left, who were you speaking to in Arabic, who was your community?
Well, there was a big, big gap which was quite hard because they left and that meant that about one hundred percent of the Arabic-speaking people I knew left. I was just playing music with friends and they were all, of course, Canadians and there was quite a period where there was a bit of a lull on that front, there was nothing. I would go back to Lebanon, of course, a couple times a year to see my parents and it would just be when I was there. I had a lot of friends in Beirut and so my only connection would be when I was in Beirut. Otherwise here, for a very long time, there were no Arabs who would make music especially underground, weird noise punk stuff.
There must have been something in you that was able to carry this forward somehow, even without a community to carry the music into a different future, almost. Were any of your parents or family members musicians or in the arts in any way?
None whatsoever. I couldn’t be any more far removed. Both of my parents come from massive families, my mum’s from a family of twelve, my father’s from a family of ten, they grew up dirt poor so they were working from a very young age and they were on a completely different planet from us. The idea of being in the arts was such a bourgeois luxury in their eyes. I couldn’t be more the odd one out in the whole larger family, like nobody from all of my aunt’s and uncle’s kids were in the arts. So yeah nothing, like in any form, not cinema, not music, not literature, not theatre, none of it.
Was there ever a point where you could have gone a totally different direction?
No, I don’t think so. You know there’s always people like me I have to say I feel totally sorry for people who are in the situation that I am, in the sense of that family pressure when you have parents that don’t really understand what that means to want to do that and to them, it’s just like why are you throwing your life away? For a long time that’s my feeling that my family felt, just like what are you doing? Grow up already! The fun and games should be over at this point, you’re in your late twenties and you’re still doing this, it’s kind of ridiculous. So there’s definitely this constant pressure to get it together and to really start thinking about the future and stop pursuing this “hobby.” It takes a lot of inner strength to always be resisting that. It pushes you to the point where you are able to come to terms with the fact that this is what you want to do and you justify it and don’t make excuses for it, you stand behind it like “this is my job. This is what I do, this is my career.” So it’s very difficult, all throughout our adult life, our friends all dropped out of the arts and pursued more economically viable career paths because they succumbed to the pressure of either family or society or whatever, as cliché as it sounds it’s very true.
My partner Charles [André Coderre] in the project who’s doing the visuals, he’s had a very different sort of path where his parents were one hundred percent encouraging and pushed him towards the arts and he just went from doing his masters to straight away being an artist and that’s all he’s done which to me is like this awesome thing and he’s so lucky to have that. My parents just come from a world with no net to fall back on, they don’t come from a place that has any social security. They come from a place where what is in your pocket is all you own in the world. If you have nothing in your pocket, you’re fucked, so make sure you have something in your pocket and I get that, it’s a very valid point of view and way to see life, but of course, it’s not the point of view I choose.
Are you self-taught or do you have any formal training?
No, completely self-taught. Anybody can do what I do, anyone can, there’s no magic in the recipe. The taste part of it is the taste, and you either have that or don’t but the technical aspect of it I always am struggling with my disappointment in my technical abilities. It’s a big problem for me.
Once you were done high school you just started learning instruments on your own and learning to sing?
Yeah exactly, first it was just a guitar that my friend lent to me to play and I had no idea what the hell it was and I remember there was all this tape on the back of it with all these little notes on what to do and how to play anything any melody and from there that developed into more electronic instruments and making some interesting textures with them and then from there I just decided to pick up the bouzouki which is an instrument that has the features of stringed fretted instruments so it was fairly easy to make some sort of sound on it and not make it sound terrible and then from there really starting to listen to tons and tons of traditional recordings and trying to take that and implement it into my limitations and style and understanding and accepting the limitations you have and then from there working with that as opposed to constantly trying to achieve something that you can’t because it’s just there are all these instruments that are, you know, for one to master them, like all instruments you have to start at such a young age, it’s a lifelong task of learning the instrument and learning how to interpret and how to make art with it. I love listening to musicians who have followed this path of, you know, of self-taught and different and new interpretations of instruments and how to make it sing.
Did you know how to sing or was it something that you just started singing?
No, absolutely not. I push myself to take lessons with professional singers I admire locally and every time we do it I’m so disappointed, we’ve got a mountain to climb to get a base level. It’s very hard for me. The voice felt like the most immediate and personal tool for communicating. I wanted to communicate with emotion through language while consciously aware that the vast majority of audiences might not understand what I’m saying. And that, to me, is part of the communication challenge, communicating emotion that way. That’s why I exclusively sing in Arabic.
Yes, I find that I’m immediately drawn to the tracks where your voice comes in even though I don’t speak the language. I may not be relating to the language but I’m relating to the emotional registers of your voice.
That’s very much by design. That’s very much the intent behind all this--to have this process of tying the line between my mind and your mind. That’s why half the record is instrumental and half the record is with voice, and even using those terms it’s kind of abstract because the voice is nothing but an instrument, it’s another instrument in the palette of colours that I have.
You’ve talked about working within restriction--having to rise above your own voice or your own limitation with instrumentation. I’m wondering when you’re starting ideas for the record do you have a thesis of things that you want to achieve or do you improvise all the way throughout and edit later?
No, it’s very precise and I do a lot of improvisation within the structure that I built but there’s always these clear sort of milestones that I put for myself to like achieve these and a lot of experimentation especially with modular synthesis stuff, it’s a very controlled randomness, you are aware of what you’re doing but it’s hard to replicate the results. It’s often about seizing the moment.
It’s about the feeling and the flow of how my body is reacting to my ears, so what I’m hearing with my own voice and then cutting it up and sampling it on the fly, the second that it’s happening. It’s very controlled, I have it plotted out, I know exactly the path that I need to take, but the results can be extremely random, and about half the set is that live actually. It’s so weird because as the tour progresses you realize that everything kind of gets closer and closer and closer to one another and it starts to replicate itself every night even though it’s completely random.
Jerusalem In My Heart, Thahab, Mish Roujou', Thahab from Daqa'iq Tudaiq, 2018
At first, you were just doing performances and then started recording so you went from performances into object making, I’m wondering do you find the performances to be more like a personal offering because it’s directly through your body as opposed to mediating the artwork through objects?
For me, it’s a tough position and we present to the audience in a room. We’re occupying a space, we transform it, and we make it into a little sphere of a microcosm. We gently open the door and from there it’s up to the audience to decide whether they want to walk through and dive into the story being presented to them or not.
At the end of the day, it’s just a composition and you interpret it and connect whatever dots you want because it’s abstract. It’s abstract visuals, its abstract music, its abstract words, and its abstract language because you don’t speak Arabic. There’s always the occasional person who wants to know if they’re right, and it’s always an awkward moment where I’m like, there is no right, there is no wrong! There is no anything, it’s just yours. It’s yours! I will not control it, who am I to control your emotions? I’m nobody like it’s just you control your own emotions, and someone can be just feeling, you know, certain sadness or certain joy and they can come to the show and engage in it. That can either amplify or nullify that joy or sadness or whatever it is. I like that, and I feel very much proud of that aspect of the show. That’s very much… if someone wants to hop on it, go on that journey. And I’m sounding super hippie and far out, but it’s really that.
With the visuals and the music, there’s also this kind of digging through archival material –
Let me stop you right there: that’s a very common thing that people seem to think about the work. Every single image that you see is made by us. There’s not one archival image! People often assume its found footage which really baffles me because I guess I’m so in it that to me it’s very obvious. But constantly, it’s a thing we struggle with because people assume this “old-timey look” because you’re using this format that people associate with I don’t know, like a smartphone filter but it’s not at all. Everything that everybody sees is one hundred percent shot by Charles, hand-processed by Charles, stuff we conceived together. None of it is found footage, it’s all-new footage that we have made, that Charles has made using homemade chemicals, hand processing in his own personal lab so it’s quite a laborious, exact process.
if we don’t see something that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, right? To me, it’s [the buzuq] very new and very contemporary. There’s no intent of bringing something back. These are tools I use. So, there’s no nostalgia here, I have no interest in that personally and artistically. It’s not evoking this memory or this past or this history. I don’t see it like that.
The final result has gone through a bunch of processes, but the album cover begins with a pre-existing material and then it goes through a different –
Processing yeah, on that front, but for the record, the image you see on that cover of the last album is actually a photo of my uncle. Part of the concept of this record [Daqa'iq Tudaiq] was that we got in touch with this foundation called the Arab Image Foundation, who have this giant archive of images of many photographers, and one particular photographer called Hashim Almadani. He just passed away a couple of years ago but there’s an artist called Akram Zaatari who sort of harnessed all of his collection and presented it to the Arab Image Foundation for archival purposes and we got in touch and said we want to do this one aspect of the record and the show that is a re-photography of the photography. We selected a handful of images of pictures that we had some sort of connection to, especially the cover which is very much a direct personal connection, and we wanted to sort of un-aged the photos by re-photographing the photographs. So we got the photographs and we re-photographed them, and then took that film and of course, Charles processed it, and we made a loop feed, we created and edited loops we use for the show. They’re very much not like, the act of the capturing is now, and here. So, it’s very much we didn’t want to use, they offered us to use even the images themselves and we were like, that’s not part of the idea at all, absolutely not. We don’t want the found footage, we want it to be the eye that has seen the found footage, the eye being the camera, and then us. This is our interpretation of it, this is what we see when we see this.
To go back, I guess when I brought up archive I was thinking about the music references a certain tradition but there’s a reinterpretation, so I was just thinking, what is this motivation to go back and to bring forward something that existed before, and especially –
You mean musically, that’s specifically what you mean?
I understand your question, but that’s actually not how I see it. That’s like if one were to pose the question: the electric guitar comes from the fifties, and playing the electric guitar now, what motivates somebody to bring back this? I think we have to be very careful when we talk about this (and you bring this up in the most perfect way because you’re allowing me to talk about this because I would not talk about it if you had not brought it up) but an instrument like the instrument [buzuq] that I play, that’s very contemporary for me, very much the here and now. It is very common for people from here to associate this with something from the past, but that’s very much not the case. If we don’t see something that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, right? To me it’s very new and very contemporary. There’s no intent of bringing something back. These are tools I use. So, there’s no nostalgia here, I have no interest in that personally and artistically. It’s not evoking this memory or this past or this history. I don’t see it like that. And that also falls in line with the idea of the found footage thing. People often come to me saying, like, where did you find this insane footage? We created this, this is all staged, everything you’re seeing is a set and we have set actors and we filmed them, or this is us on our travels where we have our cameras and we’re filming. We’re filming things we see. I get that the references might be something that is like bringing back something that is old, but the reality is, as I said, the intention behind it isn’t that at all and the content isn’t that at all.
What do you envision for Jerusalem in My Heart going to the future? You’ve been around for quite a while now and you’ve morphed in different ways, so what does the future look like for you, what do you want it to look like for you?
The last record is so new, so for the immediate future, there’s probably another two years of touring with this material and expanding on this show and developing it over the course of the next two years while the record lives its life, before it comes to its maturity, before it reaches a maturity. And then from there, I think it’s definitely time to do something rather different because the three albums that exist are very much, not that they’re a trilogy, but I definitely see, like, a natural and organic evolution from record one to record three and I feel like record three has hit its arrival. The first one was the departure, the second was the travel and the third is the arrival, and I feel like the arrival is there. So from there, I’m not a person who likes to repeat themselves so I need to really sit down and think about what the next chapter can be. If there’s nothing left to explore in this format, well then maybe the format needs to change. It’s not that this is a band that needs to make ten records. This is just a project and it needs to meet its evolution and if its path ends, its path ends. I don’t think it is, I think there’s still far more to explore, I just need to make sure I find that door and open it.