In 1984, the guitarist Gayle Ellett founded the instrumental progressive rock band Djam Karet with three friends. Over the years, they’ve put out dozens of albums, amassing a cult following. Ellett has also recorded music for TV and film, accumulating an extensive catalog of credits.
His 2002 album, Winds of War, is an anomaly. It is an abstract sound collage of field recordings — culled “from ancient Arabic deserts and 1,000-year-old villages, viciously processed and mangled forever by contemporary analog keyboards and other recording studio devices.” According to its press release, the goal was to symbolize the destruction of Islamic culture by the American military.
I spoke to Ellett about this unusual record. Ellett lives in Topanga, California, and around the time Winds of War came out, he was dating a woman who had lived in Morocco and spoke some Arabic. They chose to travel to Morocco for a vacation, and he found himself captivated by the sounds he encountered there. “I made a ton of field recordings there,” he tells me. “I had a small portable DAT recorder with me that I used to record the sounds of the markets and mosques. I wasn’t sure at the time how I would later use these recordings, but I knew it was a good idea to at least capture the sounds I heard on the streets of Morocco.”
He then ran this audio through his Minimoog modular synthesizer, filtering and modulating the sounds and performing some digital touch-ups on his computer. “Once I heard how it sounded, when I ran it through my analog synthesizer’s filters and modulation system — it took on a rather creepy vibe,” Ellett explains. “And we were, as we are now, in the middle of a huge war in Afghanistan. Basically I was mangling the sounds of their Islamic culture by jamming it through an American synthesizer, and bending and distorting their world to my liking. And so the album began to take on a rather anti-American/anti-imperialism tone to it, and I maintained that theme with the track titles.”
Indeed, titles include “The Liberated City” and “‘Round ‘Em Up.'” He explains that he was inspired by his revulsion towards the anti-Muslim sentiment in the air at the time.
When asked about the precedent for this type of experimental record, Ellett puts it simply: “Everybody listens to John Cage, don’t they?” He explains that experimental music is commonplace in California and, besides, Ellett’s band, Djam Karet, would often utilize reel-to-reel tapes to add layers of found sounds to their live performances.
Winds Of War was released through the early digital music website mp3.com, which ran a service called Digital Automatic Music, in which they would produce CD-R versions of albums at artists’ request. Ellett believes 250 copies were made in total.
Listener response was mixed. “Well, it is a very strange recording! Seriously strange! So many people did not like it at all. But some did find it to be very interesting and unique. But I really made it for myself, not others, so I was happy with how it all turned out.” Only a couple of reviews were done, one from an American prog rock website and another from an Uzbekistani website.
Today, he reflects positively on this release, which is one among many. “I think it worked out really well, in my totally biased opinion,” he says. “I write music in a very wide range of styles, from art-rock to film music to traditional World music, and currently I play in eight bands and I’ve played on over 120 albums. So I am very interested in a really wide range of music, and making this avant-garde album was a unique experience, and a ton of fun!”
Thanks to Gayle Ellett for the interview. Visit his website here.