(from Melody Maker, 3 November 1990)
I SPHINX THEREFORE I AM
Earlier this year, Jaz Coleman took time out from KILLING JOKE to record an album of Arabic music with ART OF NOISE producer Anne Dudley. CAROL CLERK travelled back to the Pyramids with Jaz and discovered how a crisis of conscience meant turning his back on anger and the occult and starting a search for a new way of life.
It's somewhere around seven in the morning, and the beginning of the day brings a cautious light and pale blue skies as we find ourselves wandering, on horseback, across miles of sand.
To our left, the unmistakable shape of a Great pyramid towers above us through the mist, all the more dramatic and magical for its hazy outline. In every other direction, there is desert, as far as the eye can see.
The other pyramids appear suddenly, thrillingly, as our journey progresses. The situation in the Gulf has taken its toll on Cairo's tourist industry, and where usually there would be two or three hundred people on hand to share sunrise at the Pyramids, now there are ... just us.
Overwhelmed by the majesty of the monuments and the timeless simplicity of the land which surrounds them, shaken by a sense of privilege and history and tradition, I'm outraged by my own Dogs D' Amour tee-shirt, a ludicrous object which has no right to be here.
Jaz Coleman obviously knows the feeling. Today, he has swopped his denims for a simple black robe, trimmed with gold. In any other setting, this would seem bizarre, hilarious. Here, he looks very much a part of this strange old world we are visiting.
Jaz, a man who could talk the hind leg off a camel, is uncharacteristically quiet as we travel. He asks our guide to find a retreat, a place for "meditation and prayer", so he can clear his head before the interview.
We are duly taken to the furthest pyramid, and ushered into a stone enclosure at its base. The guide is a skinny, wizened little man called pyramid Frank. He claims to be 50, looks 70, and hops around with all the agility of a 10-year-old as he tells us excitedly that this is a place where "you can thank God for the sun and the moon and the stars". We leave Jaz to it.
Half an hour later, the day is taking shape. The Pyramids are glowing white, sharply defined against a deep blue sky. Jaz is entranced.
"This place was built by a people who didn't have the same conception of time and death as us," he ventures. "They could start a project, knowing it would not be finished within their own lifespan. They had a capacity to be selfless. They worked within the dimensions of something that was utterly timeless.
"I think this was because of their spiritual notions. I believe they were inspired by God ... the supreme being. These pyramids are filled with the presence of divine inspiration. The structures tower over Cairo almost threateningly. I think they threaten present civilisation. They make everything seem so transient. They weren't built for a period of time. They were built so they would make an imprint on the soul of the individual. I believe this is a holy place."
Jaz Coleman, who throughout his career with Killing Joke has been associated entirely with unholy doings, with devilish rituals and dangerous magic, is a changed man these days, a man who will talk for hours about his recent religious awakening.
But his explanations, for the moment, are interrupted by the reappearance of pyramid Frank, who has temporarily forgotten the sun and the moon and the stars, and is now demanding more money. If we don't pay, he'll take the horses away.
Rather than play at mad dogs, walking the desert in the midday sun, we cough up. We keep coughing up at regular periods throughout the morning. We end up giving Frank a fortune.
|Jaz Coleman, in
an unlikely collaboration with Anne Dudley from The Art of Noise, has released
an album called "Songs From The Victorious City", the city in question being
This is an orchestral work, an attempt to portray and celebrate the various sights and sounds and experiences of the city, from dawn at the pyramids ("The Awakening") to a wedding party in the poorest part of town ("Endless Festival"), reflecting both the ancient Egyptian civilisation and the Islamic musical tradition.
A cross-cultural experiment which involved much to-ing and fro-ing between Cairo and London, it mixes elements from the East and the West. Britain meets India meets Egypt, where Jaz believes he has found the purest Arabic music there is.
Parts of the LP, such as the rhythm tracks, were recorded in the English countryside, the rest in Cairo's Ammar Sound studios where Egyptian musicians contributed their traditional instruments.
In the interests of authenticity, Coleman has added the spoken voices of his friends and acquaintances, even recorded the hooves of the donkey ambling along the streets of the market, and the results are remarkably impressive: it does indeed conjure up all the atmosphere of a visit to Cairo.
"One side of myself loves harmony and melody as much as the other side of me loves very high-energy, explosive dissonance," says Jaz. "That side of me is as romantic as the landscapes of the world, and Anne Dudley is responsible for encouraging me to bring that out into the open. I now realise that I can work in both areas of music by keeping them completely separate."
The introduction to Anne Dudley came about through Stones' producer Chris Kimsey, who suggested that Jaz should let her see, and hear some of his orchestral scores.
"Superficially, one would think that we come from two separate universes, but we actually come from the same place," says Jaz, the wild man of Killing Joke, of the sedate keyboard player who is most often described as "headmistressy".
"I had a classical upbringing, and working with Anne took me back to a time when I enjoyed a very pure relationship with music. She's dedicated her whole life to it. But she did scare the living daylights out of the Egyptian musicians ..."
The purpose of this trip to Cairo is for Jaz to bring copies of the finished album to the Egyptian musicians who have not yet heard it. He is so eager to do this that despite our late arrival at the airport in the early hours of the morning, he insists on dashing straight to the studio.
His friend and recording engineer Sameh Almazny has waited at arrivals, with remarkably good humour, throughout our five-hour delay, and he drives us to Ammar Sound which turns out to be just as much a social centre as a studio.
Jaz is hugged and vigorously kissed on both cheeks by what seems like an entire orchestra and we settle down in a small, smokey control room to sip, or, rather chew, thick black coffee with cardamom as the grand playback begins.
The musicians' initial curiosity and bemusement gradually gives way to broad grins and much slapping of backs. Jaz is delighted.
"I've been wanting to work here for years," he enthuses. "Obviously, I've been involved in antiquities and pre-literate civilisations, but my big inspiration with Cairo has been centred on the people more than anything, on the friends I've made since I started coming here in 1981.
"I've never felt that England was my spiritual home. I was born in Cheltenham, an ultra middleclass Conservative environment, and it was always made apparent to me by my peers at school and during further education that I wasn't altogether accepted.
"My father's as English as they come and my mother's Indian. There's Persian in my family too. And so for much of my life I've been searching for my individual and spiritual identity."
That search may or may not end in Cairo, but Jaz concedes, "I identify with the directness of the Arab people. They don't suppress what they really feel.
"I think of Cairo and I think of poverty, pain, suffering, dirt, smell, but I also think of faith, God, loyalty and friendship. They know the meaning of friendship over here. When someone is your friend, they offer you their food, their home, everything. You're like a member of their family."
This is borne out by our visits to various of Jaz's friends. Market trader Gabriel immediately offers mint tea and a generous discount on his silverware; Ammar El Sherie, apparently one of the most famous musicians in the Middle East and a friend of Omar Sharif, insists that we come back to Egypt and see him again; the chap who runs the hotel disco, where we watch a troupe of Russian belly dancers, lays on free drinks all night. The hospitality of a Bedouin Arab called Abu Seta, whose family live in indescribable poverty, surpasses anything in my experience. Their "street" is a sandy track, their home a collection of bare rooms encased by bare walls. There's a single naked light bulb in the front room and a chicken wanders in and out at will.
Jaz, who first met Abu Seta at the pyramids, is welcomed like a long-lost son, and a blanket is quickly put out on the floor for the visitors. Photographer, Stephen Sweet, to his horror and to Coleman's great amusement, is affectionately kissed by the big, beaming head of the family, and we are showered with gifts: decorative Arab head-dresses, toy camels, jewellery.
Jaz has anticipated this and come prepared. He gives each of the children a copy of The Koran in a velvet box.
"I wouldn't give them anything which comes from Western culture," he remarks. "I think it would be insulting."
Abu Seta invites us back for breakfast the next day. Considering it's offensive to the host to leave so much as a scrap of food on your plate, and considering Jaz's last visit was memorable for a tray of sheep's eyeballs, we feel a guilty sense of relief when our morning transport fails to arrive.
What were the eyeballs like then, Jaz?
"I said I was fasting ..." he chuckles.
Meanwhile back at the pyramids, Jaz has become determinedly confessional.
"The last two years have been the worst two years of my life, and in another respect the best two because they forced me to change. I had two years of extreme stress and serious depression, culminating in a complete nervous breakdown last year.
"Killing Joke were in litigation with our former management, our record company and our publishing company. We couldn't do anything during that time. I had the feeling that everything I'd built up with Killing Joke over 12 years was falling to bits.
"At the same time, I was convinced it would be better for me to stop working with Killing Joke because of the very intense atmosphere, the strange energy, that the music evokes. I came very close to taking somebody's life. The intent was there.
"A lot of my personal stress had to do with what I dabbled with, too, ritual practices of one kind or another, invoking through myself some very dubious forces or however you'd like to describe that metaphysical element. And I was relying too much on intoxication.
"I knew l couldn't carry on living the way I was, and on February 26 this year - the same date I started Killing Joke 12 years ago, the date I landed myself in Iceland in 1982, and also my birthday - things came to a crunch for me. It was the day I realised I had to change everything in my life.
"I was confronted with a mirror image of myself. I had to look hard at what I had become, and I didn't like what I saw. One side of me was very ruthless and capable of atrocities.
"The first major step towards my recovery was realising that I had a conscience. The schools of thought I identified with in the past, from Neitzsche to Crowley, obviously, and Kenneth Grant, had dubious moral and ethical foundations.
"The notion that restriction is sin, or the notion of absolute liberation as the aim of the supreme being in the way that these people portray it, I think is misguided and unacceptable, and full of loopholes. I don't believe that there should be rape in our society, I don't believe that children should be hung, or that there should be child abuse. I don't believe that sexuality should be unleashed to run rampant.
"I wouldn't trust any of these outcast philosophers to create a society for any of my offspring to live in. So I had to define to myself my own sense of ethics and morals.
"I had homeopathic treatment and acupuncture for the depression, but the most effective thing was having a very experienced person healing me spiritually. It was made apparent to me that the rest of my life should be used to master my baser self, my impulse, my anger. And I was advised that I should stay with Killing Joke because I needed an extreme outlet for my own excessive energy.
"Finally, I've reached a point where success or failure in terms of money or record sales is absolutely irrelevant to me. What I'm doing now, with this album and with the new Killing Joke album, is making music from my heart, not my head.
"I've started opening my heart for the first time by stilling the mind. I try and achieve absolute stillness every day of my life, partly through meditation and partly through prayer.
"I'm not trying to sell any denomination or anything like that. I don't believe in one way as the only way. For me, I went through an emotional experience which altered my life, and now I'm fighting to try and achieve self-control."
Jaz is remarkably self-controlled during yet another visit from pyramid Frank, informing him, calmly, that there is no more money. We get back on our horses and return to town, stopping off at the Sphinx on our way.