Record Review: Celt Islam – Baghdad (2012, Ajnavision records)

Baghdad is the fruit of merging Sufi music and philosophy with dub/trance electronic music. Captivating melodies transcend borders with ease for a world more unified, devoid of cultural hegemony.

Celt Islam Baghdad

Genre: Sufi Dub/Electro-Trance/New world music

Country: England

Artist Website: Facebook

Label: Ajnavision records

Baghdad is a beautiful album of oriental electronic music and Celt Islam is one of the most gifted producers of his kind. We can trace his melodies and samples back in the most progressive part of Islam: Sufism. He is on a mission to unleash the Sufi spirits in the world of 2012; a philosophy which is essentially inclusive, tolerant to difference and other religious systems as well as borderless by default .

That comes as a breath of fresh air in a world fragmented, filled by racial hatred and xenophobia, or more precisely ‘arabophobia’. ‘Baghdad’, in itself a provocative title, pinpoints at a once vibrant cultural and intellectual centre that was leveled by American-led 8 year occupation. To comprehend just a bit the depth of Baghdad’s cultural underpinnings, we only need to mention the ‘House of Wisdom’, a scientific hub that thrived from the 8th to the 13th century, where scholars translated Syrian, ancient Greek, Persian and Indian works to advance medicine, mathematics, geography etc., while Europe was in a medieval state.

Baghdad’s academic institutions, what UNESCO claimed to be the best in the region with international standards, were totally ruined under US occupation. US forces proceeded in a cultural cleansing by assassinating hundreds of intellectuals (the rest fled the country), inflicting material damage, looting museums (15000 stolen artifacts) etc. thereby destroying not only the present but also the history of a remarkable city.  More atrocities were revealed, after Wikileaks recovered 77000 classified documents, including 109,000 deaths of which 66081 were innocent civilians. Some of them were murders at checkpoints and targeted assassinations [1,2]. If this is not unspeakable barbarism of a ‘civilized’ superpower, what is it?

Celt Islam’s Baghdad is invoking all the senses that lead as back to spirited, colourful and vital cultural spheres. Sufism, the world of esoteric Islam, as a more free and varied expression is merged with cutting-edge electronic music to become pervasive to diverse audiences. It is an antidote to the categorization of people according to their cultural origins, as the rough stereotypes amplified by TV demand which actually divide people, inciting fear and distrust to whatever is different. It is about raising the human spirit, which has long been belittled by the awe of mass media in a persisting cultural hegemony of ‘Western development’. This propagated ‘monoculture’ is expected to cost us a further loss of 3000 languages (of the existing 6000) in the next few decades, that represent rich knowledge systems.

To understand the sounds of ‘Baghdad’ we need to look at Celt Islam’s long involvement in music. Born Abdullah Hamzah, Celt Islam comes from a culturally embedded experimental dub/trance scene marked by his participation in the ‘Nine Invisibles’ collective, which featured a sound they termed ‘Tribernetics’.  Hi is also a core member of ‘Analogue Fakir’, an electro ethno-dub band, where Sufi philosophy is again central. Analogue Fakir is a full band with bass, guitars, percussions and analogue synths. The result is not far from what the music of Celt Islam’s solo career.

‘Baghdad’ is already the thirs full-length of Celt Islam after two successful albums: 2009’s ‘Dervish’ and 2010’s ‘Al Mizan’ and a growing following. BBC chose him for the BBC introducing stage at Glastonbury 2010 and he also appeared in Wee Dub Festival 2012 last weekend. Although his music features a lot of trance/electro elements, it is more firmly rooted in dub compared to his other outfits.  He uses heavier basslines, even subbass dubstep frequencies and manifold sufi oriental melodies.

Celt Islam –  Habibiyya:

‘Wahdaat Ul Wajoord’ (unity of being) is a perfect example of ‘meta-dubstep’, meaning that dubstep elements are distilled and are sensible of the character of the song in a way that originality is not sacrificed (Rootstep’). This song is one of the most dynamic in this album that showcases dexterity, tastefulness and a mind dedicated to subtle details that elevate the song to different dimensions. This is one of the best examples of ‘new world music’ you can find around. The second track ‘Tribernetikz’ makes a reference to the sound of ‘Nine Invisibles’, while ‘The Silk Road’ is a stretched-out melodic, yet psychedelic 7 minute composition.

Other standout tracks are dub megaliths ‘Habibiyya’ and ‘Presence’ with pronounced Jah Wobble-esque basslines and captivating melodies. That is the definition of Sufi Dub sound that Celt Islam seeks to establish: an amalgam of electro-dub, ethno-dub with Sufi music and consciousness. Some people have noted that although Celt Islam’s music is modern electronic it is surprisingly melodious and emotional and we can only verify that. Another favourite here is ‘Borderless World’ with amazing string-melodies and desi-beats. Compared to his earlier efforts Baghdad is more grounded and earthly focused more on his vision of Dub and Sufi; probably his best effort to date (although ‘Dervish’ is very solid as well).

Celt Islam’s eclectic, refined touch can be paralleled to that of Thievery Corporation’s (although there are profound differences in direction). Some tabla desi sounds remind us of the Goa days and artists like MIDIval Punditz, while overall we can find some links to Bryn Jones’ work with Muslimgauze project, French live dubsters High Tone’s references to Dub Sufism (‘Mevlana In Dub’, ‘The Orientalist’) and Gaudi and Nasret Fateh Ali Khan ‘Dub Qawwali’ collaboration. We can also mention the ethno-dustep attempts by DJ Speciez of Subbass imprint, Bass Generation’s ‘Transnational Bass’ mixes and DJ Zhao’s/Ngoma Soundsystem’s musical melting pot. At a general level we could mention Ott, Sphongle, Loop Guru,  Transglobal Underground, Asian Dub Foundation, Fun-Da-Mental or even refer to the inspiring, border-defying work of artists like Dhafer Youssef.

Celt Islam’s music is of unmatched quality beyond categories. He has appropriated the global methods of music production for curbing cultural hegemony and diffuse Sufi openness. He is a ‘new world music’ artist, who embodies the essence of what we want to call in Freegan Kolektiva ‘Rootstep’.

[1] Yusuf S (2010). The cultural death of Iraq. Retrieved the 9th of February 2012 from:

[2] Baker et al (2010). Cultural cleansing in Iraq; Why museums were looted, libraries burnt and academics murdered. Pluto Press.


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