No World Beat Here

Random Inc’s Sonic Jerusalem

In the early 2000s, Sebastian Meissner assembled a team of electronic musicians to communicate the experience of being in Jerusalem without recourse to traditional idioms.

Street art at war. Qalandiya Camp, East Jerusalem.

Although Jerusalem: Tales Outside the Framework of Orthodoxy (2001) and the Walking in Jerusalem series, Volume 1 and Volume 2 (2002) that followed, were compelling for their music alone, it was the way they avoided both the clichés of world music and documentary reportage that made them exceptional.

Working under the handle Random Inc, here it seemed, was a way Meissner could provide a fresh perspective on a place so overdetermined by its history that it had become almost impossible to access psychologically.

Since these records were recorded during the Second Intifada, when both literal and figurative barriers to multicultural communication had become more extreme, their vision of a world united by attentive listening was especially appealing.

The liner notes for Jerusalem: Tales From the Framework of Orthodoxy explain that it “tells the story of a witch, a pair of magic gloves, & an enormous shark via wonderfully surreal electronic songs”.

Even if Sebastian Meissner’s description is tongue-in-cheek, the Polish artist does an excellent job of redirecting listeners away from the tropes they associate with Jerusalem.

While some tracks on the album reference the city’s “oriental” underpinnings – the sixth, twelfth, and final ones stand out – the collage pieces are too small and disaggregated to permit their reactionary consumption.

The two Walking in Jerusalem records have a more heterogeneous vibe.

Because they rely more on recognisable field recordings, it’s easier for listeners to be transported to the Jerusalem of their fantasies. But the prevalence of glitchy samples and dub-adjacent rhythms is sufficiently disorienting to inspire reflection on these cultural reflexes.

The least altered tracks, such as “At Damascus Gate”, are also short enough that they are likely to be perceived according to the logic of montage, heard in relation to what precedes and follows them.

It’s hard to imagine records like these being made today.

At a time when concerns about cultural appropriation overshadow the impulse to incorporate and transform content identified as “other”, the distanciation that Random Inc prioritises risks being interpreted as a hostile gesture.

The current political climate is also a factor.

It shows how bad things have become that the Second Intifada now seems like a time of comparative restraint in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.

When these albums were first released, their attempt to reconcile through culture what could never be reconciled through politics could still feel like a noble pursuit.

Today, they would likely strike people on both sides of the conflict as foolhardy and ideologically compromised by their refusal to take a stance.

But that’s an “us” problem.

In the absence of progress at the negotiating table, the need for cultural in-between spaces where Israel and Palestine can collide without violence is dire.

Even if Random Inc’s representation of Jerusalem is naïve, its resistance to hardened ideas of the city is doing valuable work.

Compared to the aggressive electronic noise popular in their day – think Digital Hardcore artists like Atari Teenage Riot and Bomb 20 – these albums make for comparatively easy listening.

But that accessibility underscores how hard it is for anyone to hear over the din that perpetually dominates discourse about Jerusalem.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.