Sam Shalabi: compositions across continents

0 Posted by - September 7, 2010 - Blog, Sound

Sam Shalabi

An Arabic version of this article was published in the Beirut-based Al Adab cultural journal.

Weaving together diverse musical traditions that span oceans, Montreal-based composer and musician Sam Shalabi offers a distinctive sound, rooted in contemporary musical experimentation but also inspired by the popular orchestras that took a cultural center stage in Egypt in the late 1960s.

Impressive in scope, Land of Kush, the latest music ensemble project orchestrated by Shalabi, explores new musical boundaries while combining artistic practice from the Middle East and North America.

As headlines of war often shape mainstream media coverage on the Middle East in the West, Shalabi’s music presents an artistic front embodying a complex and interconnected relationship between cultures, rooted in creative ties that influence the identity of both societies.

Amassing together over thirty musicians, drawn from varied artistic traditions and playing over two dozen different instruments, Shalabi has united an incredible musical ensemble in Land of Kush.

Rendering Cairo’s opera house

“In the past ten years my interest in working with big musical groups was really parked by learning about the large orchestras of Egypt, a lightning rod for what was going on culturally in the Middle East at the time,” outlines Shalabi. “Those concerts at the Cairo Opera House were like town halls, and were very open to cross-cultural influences, so they are a really good model.”

Although strongly tied to both Montreal and the Middle East, Shalabi’s work openly celebrates and builds on cultural traditions rooted firmly in Egypt.

Extending back to Egypt during the Nasser era, Shalabi’s contemporary work offers a current take on the dynamic arts scene in Egypt decades ago, an artistic period that continues to influence cultural expression across the Middle East. Clearly inspired by figures like guitarist Omar Khorshid, who introduced improvisations on the electric guitar to Umm Kulthum’s legendary concerts in Cairo, it is an incredible history that Shalabi builds upon today in Montreal.

Land of Kush

“Land of Kush is my version of Arabic music,” outlines Shalabi, “some would say my work isn’t really Arabic music, but spending time in Cairo actually emboldened me, because simply there is so much music in Cairo that people would dismiss as being not Arabic, but in fact it is Arabic music created by Egyptians in Egypt.”

“Sometimes people have a static version of what Arabic culture is that is stuck in history,” continues Shalabi, “but in reality culture is organic and always evolving across the world.”

Certainly concerts at the Cairo Opera House decades ago presented cutting edge contemporary music from the era, experimentations on traditional Middle Eastern music, mixing in jazz saxophone or electric guitar into Arabic ballads. Today artists build on this incredible cultural history in unexpected and inspiring ways throughout the world.

Artists working in the region, like celebrated composer and musician Ziad Rahbani in Lebanon, certainly have taken inspiration from the vivid musical experimentation found in the orchestras of Egypt decades ago, developing new directions on the notes played along the Nile.

Cultural space opened at the marathon Cairo concerts continue to move musicians across the world, illustrating a spirit of openness seldom found in formulaic pop melodies that dominate corporate radio waves, from North America and the Middle East.

Literary compositions

Beyond the orchestras of Egypt, the first release from Shalabi’s mass ensemble Land of Kush is named after Against the Day, a 2006 novel by mysterious American author Thomas Pynchon.

“A thematic thread in the Pynchon book is electromagnetism, which basically becomes a character, shaping the narrative arc,” explains Shalabi, “in all of Pynchon’s books the technology, the science, the zeitgeist of the era is central, things like light becomes narrative material, this type of thinking structured the compositions on Against the Day.”

Jumping between continents in conversation Shalabi moves to consider that Pynchon’s literary techniques, often focusing on social atmosphere or phenomenon to build storylines, can be compared to traditional methods of musical composition in the Middle East. Clearly Shalabi’s cultural references are across the map.

“In the older ways of learning Arabic music and also Indian music, one would associate music with poetry, with color, all sorts of phenomena that have nothing directly to do with learning music or an instrument, totally different than a classical conservatory today,” says Shalabi. “Certainly there are similarities between Pynchon’s literary style and these traditions in Arabic music. The narrative in Against the Day is developed through things like light or electromagnetism, so the book as material for the Land of Kush project made sense.”

Literary works are often paramount to Shalabi’s music, as previous compositions have been inspired by thinkers such as the celebrated philosopher-sociologist Walter Benjamin. An active attempt to guide composition by profound text is clearly central to Shalabi’s creative process.

Cairo and Benjamin’s state of emergency

Woven into Shalabi’s work is an active consideration of the complex relations between cultures, manifested in both the arts and turbulent political currents shaping our world.

Shalabi“Clearly political events occurring in the Arab world are fundamentally connected to events occurring here in North America,” explains Sam Shalabi. “One person in Cairo described America as ‘the eye of the hurricane.’ There is a sense in Cairo that this [North America] is the only place in the world where the population doesn’t have this immediate sense of what Walter Benjamin called ‘a state of emergency’, a notion of emergency that one feels if you are aware politically and culturally.”

“In Egypt, people are always living in a state of emergency, because they are living under a dictatorship that is intimately connected to Israel and the U.S.,” says Shalabi, “in Egypt people are more hopeful but also more fearful, as this ‘state of emergency’ is in their face.”

Successive trips between Montreal and Cairo, home to familial roots, certainly have had a profound influence on Shalabi’s creative thinking and in discussions on time in Egypt Shalabi speaks on experiences lived in Cairo with grassroots social activists.

“In fact, the first people I met in Egypt were social activists, which was an excellent way to become oriented in Cairo. In terms of developing a sense of the political landscape of Egypt, they were probably the best guides, as they were very open and thoughtful people, while also passionate about the work that they were doing to change Egyptian society.”

Composing across continents

Eid, an album released in 2006, was largely written and conceived in Cairo, marking Shalabi’s first studio recording directly rooted in trans-continental travel, a dynamic album featuring gorgeous solo oud improvisations and composition collaborations with singers such as the late Lhasa de Sela.

“Thematically, Eid was informed by an effort to see how North America looked from the Middle East or Egypt,” explains Shalabi, “both from my own perspective but [also from those] of Egyptians in Cairo – trying to develop a sense or an understanding about Cairo’s thoughts on a place like North America politically, culturally and socially”

Certainly Shalabi’s work is internationalist, outlining in artistic practice that in contrast to current conflicts shaped by colonial borderlines, cultural creation is a global process, seriously influenced by localities but also shaped by our increasingly global identities.

In 2002 Osama was released, an autobiographical album titled after Shalabi’s given first name, sparking critical acclaim. Osama reflected on the political turbulence globally stemming from 9/11, communicating reflections from a creative mind shaped by currents from the river Nile in Egypt, to the river Saint-Laurent in Montreal.

“All I can say is that the album was done under a cloud of anger, joy, sadness and an involuntary absurdity,” outlines Shalabi in notes on the album. “Hopefully it says something, though, about ‘arabophobia in a post 9-11 world’ in an informative, entertaining and rockin’ kind of way.”

Today Shalabi has flipped 9/11 reflections into an active cross-cultural artistic practice, via the critically acclaimed Land of Kush ensemble, currently completing a second album at the Hotel 2 Tango studios in Montreal. Certainly Shalabi is a critically important alternative composer in North America to follow.

It is a profound musical curiosity that is immediately apparent in Shalabi’s unique compositions, which also reflect experiences of diasporas from the Middle East in North America. Extending beyond static definitions of cultural identity into blurry but fascinating territory, Shalabi’s music breaks down borders, presenting an internationalist spirit that is important to consider in a world increasingly torn between fictitious borderlines.

For more information on Sam Shalabi and Land of Kush visit Constellation Records at

Images: Radwan Moumneh and Herb Greenslade.

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