Culture  Stomping to success

Psychedelic Middle Eastern music finds an audience in Montreal

Nietzsche once said that “we have art so we will not be destroyed by truth.” Whether the student “truth” be midterm season or some other all-consuming situation, there’s no doubt that we all occasionally need a distraction of some kind – whether it’s a self-indulgent flail-and-wail, or a more refined performance put on by practiced musicians. So if your saving grace is music, there is nothing worse than finding yourself in a rut where all of the music around you suddenly seems like it comes from the same congealed pot of humdrum inspiration.

Let me introduce you to a project that will undoubtedly remedy your musical boredom: Jerusalem In My Heart. This project was spawned by a man named Radwan Moumneh, who was suffering from the very same problem when he first got into music making.

The name of the musical project – Jerusalem In My Heart – alludes to his home country, and makes reference to a fairly politically-charged album by the Lebanese artist Fairuz. A Lebanese Christian prima donna, Fairuz shows solidarity with the Palestinians, and courageously demonstrates national unity through her craft. Her album consists of songs relating to Palestine, and its agitated relations with its neighbouring countries. The Palestinians and Lebanese Christians in Lebanon endured particularly tense and violent relationships throughout the 15-year Lebanese Civil War.

Moumneh first arrived in Montreal with his family in 1993, from the Sultanate of Oman, where they were living during the Lebanese Civil War. When he initially moved here, he was subjected to racial slurs by both his peers and his teachers, as well as an insecurity about his identity. “It’s very hard not to feel like an alien when you have never seen peanut butter and the idea of cold milk repulses you.” He explains that “it was a very difficult transition we made coming here when I was in my late teens. I think it, however, shaped me and my sense of what I have to say with my project.”

Despite his ostracized youth, once Moumneh entered the music scene in 2003, he found the community much more supportive of his project. He claims that “people in the art world are very safe people. I don’t feel that people would criticize something ‘ethnic’ in the same way that they’d criticize a local indie band. No one wants to come across as the person who ‘didn’t get it’ because they might seem ignorant, and that’s sad.” Regardless of the acceptance he has received, Moumneh remains skeptical about his audience’s approval. “It does present a certain element of orientalism, and it is a hard thing to process. Nothing lamer than feeling like you are a circus monkey performing to a bunch of privileged anglophone white art school students.” Surprisingly, Radwan asserts that it’s easier to generate a non-Arab crowd. “What I do is weird for a lot of Arabs. Recently, however, more and more Arabs have been approaching me and telling me about their interest.”

Moumneh has been nurturing this project, which he calls his “defective child,” for the past four years or so – and each performance has been unique. He began performing alone, but the numbers have grown; member counts and instruments used vary with each show. There will be a hefty rhythmic aspect to his upcoming shows on October 23 and 24 at Montréal arts interculturels, he says. “The beast will come from four percussionists and roughly 35 women who will be stomping and kicking their feet to the beats.”

Moumneh insists that he receives his influence both from western music and Arabic music. “I am a fan of ambiguity in art,” he says. “I do it because I need to do it and that’s all there is to it. Pure expression and pure emotion. I haven’t made a record or tried to tour this or anything. I’m just content with doing it here and now.” The pieces performed are an equal blend of re-interpreted classic songs and original compositions. Go treat your ears to this true buffet of music, and indulge in an experience that will never compromise its genuine style.