Afričko-srednjoistočno-indijska jazz-folk-rock suita.
Taj Sam Shalabi radi i muziku nadahnutu Pynchonom.
"Sam Shalabi has raised the bar for modern psychedelic music by composing this epic suite for his 20-piece Land of Kush orchestra. By utilizing African, Middle Eastern, Indian, jazz, rock, and folkloric sources, The Big Mango weaves a seamless montage of styles in a transcendent way that is rarely, if ever, achieved. A singular cohesive statement built around five key tracks written for five different female vocalists…it will demand your attention from start to finish."
– Alan Bishop (Sun City Girls / Sublime Frequencies).
Following several visits to the city over the years, Osama (Sam) Shalabi moved to Cairo in 2011, arriving at an apartment one block from Tahrir Square, in the midst of Egypt's 'Arab Spring'. Shalabi describes The Big Mango, his new and phenomenal work for his Land Of Kush big-band, as "a love letter to Cairo" framed by "the beautiful, surreal madness of the city…as joyous, horrific, historical events were unfolding". The music was also inspired by time spent in Dakar – a break from the unrelenting intensity of Cairo – where in Senegal's music scene Sam experienced parallels to another of his important aesthetic and political touchstones, Brazilian Tropicalia. The sense of a "positivity, complexity and radicalism in art that was also playful and joyous and wasn't necessarily part of a 'revolution' but seemed to be a form of innate radicalism" – in tandem with the relative openness of Dakar's Islamic society, where the role and presence of women in public and private life, and the relaxed physicality and sensuality of the culture in general – offered a powerful counterpoint and feeling of promise for Egypt's own future. The Big Mango is one of the many nicknames for Cairo, but also evokes the sweetness, succour and sensuality of southern hemispheric music more generally, in its aforementioned relation to broader socio-political movements.
Montréal remains Shalabi's home base in many respects, and the place to which he briefly returned towards the end of 2012 to reconvene the large troupe of players that have helped him realize his large-scale orchestral works under the Land Of Kush moniker. Working through The Big Mango score with these local musicians culminated in two ecstatic live performances and a recording session at Montréal's Hotel2Tango studio. This third album by Land Of Kush is arguably the group's most focused and effortlessly rewarding.
The Big Mango kicks off in typically bizarre and uncategorizably Kush fashion, with a slowly brewing stew of free-improvised instrumentation, electronics, wordless vocalizations and oblique sexuality/sensuality through the opening two tracks, "Faint Praise" and "Second Skin". These opening six minutes are an inimitable destabilizing strategy of Shalabi's – his lysergic take on an orchestra 'warming up' – that serves to introduce most of the instrumental voices and the montage of genres that will form the rest of the work, while also invoking the album's deeper conceptual preoccupations: gender, sexuality and the status of women as a culture unleashes seismic/revolutionary energies with the real possibility of attendant shifts in civil society and political structure.
For Shalabi, gender and Arab culture has been a central theme, one he took up explicitly on the previous Kush album Monogamy (2011), and which unquestionably drives The Big Mango, where once again a series of female vocalists drawn from Montréal's indie rock community anchor the work and convey what in most of the North African Arab world remains an utterly radical spirit of gender equality, expression and liberation.
The natural and implicit libidinal energy of rock and roll long since taken for granted in the West is re-situated in The Big Mango, where the album's centerpiece songs –"The Pit", "Mobil Nil", Drift Beguine" and the album's closing title track – are each highlighted by superlative, propulsive female vocal performances (and individually-authored lyrics) by Ariel Engle, Katie Moore, Elizabeth Anka Vajagic and Molly Sweeney respectively. Underpinning each of these singers is some of Shalabi's most melodically and rhythmically satisfying writing, conjuring a post-modern psychedelia that is truly sui generis. The Kush band delivers the grooves and soloists unleash excursions more fluidly than ever; for many of these players, it's the third time around embracing Sam's music, getting inside the score, and following his conduction. In combination with the peaking intensity and electricity of Shalabi's compositional vision, The Big Mango coheres, sparkles and soars: a distillation of the sonic trajectory Land Of Kush has been charting for the past five years.
There’s nothing wrong with your stereo. Your iPod isn’t about to burn up, suddenly shrouded in a black, polluted cloud, with the unhealthy, sour smell of electricity and burning plastic invading the sense of smell and a million dying transistors squirming on the desk in front of you. It might cause you to panic at first, but there is no fault to worry about; Land of Kush have dropped in.
Shipwrecked, you arrive on the tropical paradise of ‘Faint Praise’, but the natives are restless. The crackling of the flame licks against the ear like natural music, but the rising smoke also gives the locals an indication that an unwanted settlement has cropped up and invaded their land. Any prospect of peace amongst the slack of the palm-trees quickly extinguishes itself with the close, exotic grunts of a wild animal, drawn by the scent of barbequed food, come to check out the party for itself. The bright green streaks of face-paint are covered like that of a soldier in the middle of a war-zone, accompanying the feminine scream in what is an unsettling call to her native tribe.
The piano lines conjure up a fearful feeling – we really shouldn’t be here – and from ‘Second Skin’ onwards the tone has been set. What was a bright, blue day on the island of paradise turns into an unexpected, exciting cluster-fuck of experimental noise. It started with the calling, and the first assault on the innocence of silence, acted out by some kind of ancient pipe, ominous in its throaty texture, dirtied by gravel.
Peaceful openings are suddenly wrenched aside by the brutal force of a power-hungry military force. In reality, the tropical island is geographically distant, but its troubles are shared the world over; many a real-world location suffers from the plague of consistent violence. It may come as no surprise, then, to note that The Big Mango is inspired by and dedicated to the city of Cairo, itself plagued by recent violence and unprecedented civil unrest.
The deep, passionate cry for her new found liberty in her democratic infancy has now turned sour, instead becoming a cry of anguish and of lost hope, when all looked promising. The revolution also kick-started, and perhaps subconsciously promoted, a power vacuum, and paved the way for opportunistic groups looking to fuel the fire. The paradise isle shares Cairo’s smoke screen of justice and democracy with its own illusion of peace. Locked in the struggle for control are the multiple instruments, with vocalists singing authentic songs that feature a traditional verse and a fiery chorus.
The plethora of instrumentation de-stabilizes the rhythmic region, creating some beautiful carnage. The chaos could be a mirrored reflection of past scars that continue to haunt much of the Middle East as a whole. The region is, and always has been, a hotbed for religious and cultural reasons. Thousands of years later, nothing much has changed. The simmering instruments rebound off each other in a chaotic, yet structured order; the collective manage to coalesce every instrument into a well-rounded whole. More than twenty Montreal musicians play on The Big Mango; in some places, it sounds as if all twenty are playing at once, but the wheels never tumble off. One of the least used – and often neglected – musical elements comes to the fore here – fun! Yes, it’s that easy.
It may be the sudden key change and chord progression that sounds out the end of ‘The Pit, Part 1’, or the twinkling, semi-tone rap on the piano keys that conjures up a fearful mood, as if the listener were checking out a haunted refrigerator in a swanky New York apartment (think Ghostbusters). The Big Mango could be a replacement for The Big Apple.
Land of Kush drape the western song format over Middle Eastern harmonies. The strict, rhythmic chord progression of an electric guitar fits in nicely, succinctly and sweetly. The western flavour is down to the line-up of female vocalists, summoned from the indie rock scene of Montreal. The ghosts are heavy loaded guitars, running across a phantom stage.
Loaded with action-packed pieces, the music doesn’t waste any time getting down, knives at the ready – the record’s immediacy is impressive. The finale, ‘The Big Mango’ has turned full circle, 360 degrees. Fire-fuelled electric guitars smash through power chords like tanks of gasoline, but there are a couple of tasty arpeggiated sections to steer the listener through. There’s even some kind of solo, one that’s been banished from indie rock for its insane tendencies. The ending then tunes itself into an ancient, Middle Eastern drone, with only the feminine vocal able to make the jump to safety, spears as arrows on the shore. - James Catchpole www.fluid-radio.co.uk/
The Big Mango is a nickname for Cairo, and Sam Shalabi has just made the album that Cairo needs. Recorded during the euphoria of the Arab Spring, The Big Mango is about to be released in what some might call the Arab Fall: a time in which hopes have been dashed, lives have been lost, regimes have been in uproar. This is an intensely trying time for the people of Egypt, caught in a cycle of indignation, mourning and despair. Even Shalabi’s stated themes ~ the status of women in Islamic culture, the idea that radical shifts need not be threatening ~ are sublimated by the larger story. As “a love letter to Cairo (and its) beautiful, surreal, madness”, The Big Mango succeeds through the sheer vibrancy of its music. This album celebrates the diversity of international culture and sound, sharing a valuable message that can be universally applied.
The album begins with the sounds of water, traffic, fire and moans, a disorienting mix that becomes even odder with the addition of wordless vocals and strings. This tune-up leads to a more accessible instrumental piece, “Second Skin”, whose piano intro provides the album’s most western segment. (Despite its pedigree, the album was recorded in Montreal). After this, the album becomes a happy free-for-all, as the 20-piece Land of Kush orchestra gets to strut its stuff. Five female vocalists are on hand, as well as multiple international instruments, including tabla, barafon, darbuka and riqq. And look! Constellation perennial Rebecca Foon (Esmerine) contributes cello as well, blessing the project with her presence.
The super-funky “The Pit (Part 1)” is an early highlight, featuring savage saxophone, hand-clapping rhythms, groovy vocals (Ariel Engle) and a sweet breakdown in the final two minutes. This is the sort of music that begs to be heard live, outdoors, perhaps at a bazaar or local market. As the tracks bleed into each other, this feeling continues. As active as the vocalists may be (performing on roughly half of the tracks), The Big Mango belongs to the multi-ethnic players, who seem to be just as comfortable lounging around (“Mobil Nil”) as they do rocking (“Drift Beguine”) or jamming out (“St Stefano”). The Big Mango mixes jazz, funk, global music and improvisation, spotlighting a single word: life. Cairo may be an injured city right now, in an injured country, experiencing a tragic loss of life. But life continues to go on, as do the injured hopes and indomitable spirit of a nation. (Richard Allen)
Sam Shalabi’s Land Of Kush project returns: his psych-arabic jazz orchestra has produced a second album of intensely genre-defying, polymorphic, big band madness. Where Shalabi structured last year’s mesmerising Against The Day album around the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, this time Shalabi tackles concepts of shame, sexuality and society in a new multi-movement work entitled Monogamy.
Rounding up many of the same Montreal-based improv and experimental players featured on Against The Day, Shalabi deploys a cast of two dozen musicians and sound artists to realise this fantastic new compositional hybrid of Middle Eastern tropes and Western vocabularies of jazz, psychedelia and experimental/free music. For the Monogamy album, the group has been given it’s own sub-moniker as The Egyptian Light Orchestra.
The band is a truly hydra-headed beast on this recording; string, brass and woodwinds careen around the drone/backbeat of the major movements, shifting between short melodic punctuations, free excursions, and consolidated unison lines. Dissonant piano, synth and electronics bubble below, above and at the outer limits of the mix. Several transitions also allow for various players to stretch out in some lovely virtuosic solo passages. Shalabi’s oud anchors the album’s opening and closing pieces, as well as the glorious “Tunnel Visions” piece at the album’s midpoint. The rhythm section – comprising standard trap kits, upright basses and traditional Eastern percussion – holds down one hypnotic groove after another.
Shalabi has once again structured his orchestral work to feature primarily female vocalists who further challenge the categorisation of the music, conjuring everything from Galas- or Ono-style ululation (“The 1st And The Last”) to cabaret/jazz (“Scars”) to ethereal psych-folk (“Tunnel Visions”). He also employs a recurring digitally-processed voice track of “dirty” glossal phrases and cut-ups that interacts rhythmically and conceptually with the work. This sonic through-line frames and re-frames the music as psycho-sexual commentary and narrative, imbuing Monogamy’s many stylistic moments and movements with a higher conceptual power: frustration/liberation, chastity/carnality, innocence/shame, purity/impurity. Of course there’s a ‘healthy’ dose of id at play here as well – particularly on “Fisherman”, where the emotionless, robotic voice takes over in a steady stream of irreverent, desecrating, potty-mouthed absurdism. The album’s title track “Monogamy” fittingly rallies the work’s conceptual terrain, with a gorgeous vocal melody spinning a concise alphabetised summation:
A is for the apple tree
B is for Beelzebub and he’s the snake
C is for the curse of Ham
D is for the drugs that you’re now forced to take
E is for eternity
F is for the fucking that you did outside
G is for the Giving Tree
H is for the Holy Spirit’s bride
And all of this comes out In little birdlike trills
You’ll reach for paper towels
To clean up all your spills - cstrecords.com
"In the most positive way possible, an album which is, in a very literal sense, all over the place...elements of Middle-Eastern folk amongst a heavy dose of Western free-jazz, drone and psych-rock. The end result is a surprisingly coherent and thematically consistent record. The album never falls short of being sonically fascinating and if nothing else it serves as a reminder of how great it is that Constellation Records exists as an outlet for this kind of out-there, experimental LP." Drowned in Sound
"The orchestration on this record is abundant, with two dozen musicians directed by a skillful conductor. The timbre and palette oozing with oriental psychedelia: groovy percussions, woodwinds, electronic drones and keyboards. All this held together with oud, strings and a healthy dose of free-jazz. But the music is also focused on songs, with the presence of four different singers throughout. Maybe it’s the whole idea of monogamy that made Shalabi pick only female singers for this release. Elizabeth Anka Vajagic, Molly Sweeny, Katie Moore and Ariel Engle are the vocalists invited by the composer to share their voices and writing skills on his peculiar relationship between sex and music. Each performed and wrote a song with gripping results; beautiful voices combined with well-thought lyrics, following the conceptual thread of this release. The closing track of the record is so beautiful that it almost made me weep." 9/10 Foxy Digitalis
"Sam Shalabi’s combination of Arabic traditional motifs and instruments with jazz, free improvisation and electronics has moved further out to truly stretch any notion of genre to breaking point. Land of Kush has rapidly become Shalabi's best project...sublime: the playing, the singing and the overall presentation of the music is spot on. Along with Against the Day, this is certainly one of the most unique albums of recent years." Brainwashed
Against The Day (2009)
Sam Shalabi is a musician and composer who has been creating and playing music in Montréal for the better part of 20 years. Unconstrained by genre, Sam’s musical history spans rock, jazz, free music, punk, and most things in-between. A highly truncated list of his projects includes Shalabi Effect, Detention, Molasses, and Nutsak, along with several releases under his own name courtesy Alien8Recordings and Squintfucker Press.
In the last bunch of years Shalabi has been writing and arranging sprawling compositions for large ensembles, the most recurring of which is Land Of Kush, incorporating anywhere from 20 to 30-plus Montréal players and vocalists. Kush includes string, brass, woodwinds, guitar, and percussion sections, in addition to electronics and Shalabi’s oud.
Shalabi has described earlier hybrid compositional work as “protest music about Arabophobia” (Osama, 2003) after 9/11 and an attempt at modern Arabic pop (Eid, 2008) inspired by an extended stay in Cairo in 2006. Land Of Kush combines both of these impulses, to our ears, while also rallying Sam’s long obsessions with psychedelic music (viz. Shalabi Effect) and epic literary fiction.
Inspired by and named after the Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day, the music is broken into five sections, named for the book’s chapters. The three primary movements are centred around solo vocalists (Jason Grimmer, Molly Sweeney, Radwan Moumneh) who composed their own lyrics for the piece. In between vocal performances, Shalabi gives the orchestra ample opportunity to strut its stuff, including solos and long instrumental passages that display Sam’s unique balance of composition and ‘expository’ or improvisational instruction.
Against The Day is a complex, intense, but accessible hour of hybrid, genre-defying music. The marriage of middle-eastern, north African and western modes and influences yields a recording that evades categorization, by one of Montréal’s most challenging and prolific musical iconoclasts. - cstrecords.com/
“Remarkable and soul-stirring…a musical happening that transcends cultural and genre signifiers yet sparks something visceral.” Exclaim!
“[A]ccessibly melodic, phenomenally broad in scope, beautifully played and urgent.” Strange Glue
“Recruiting what seems like everyone in Montréal to play, what might have been a project too big to effectively handle has instead blossomed into the best album of the year so far.” Brainwashed
“[I]t all clicks together with brilliance and a sense of both urgency and fun at the same time... This is grand stuff on a grand scale.” Nothingatall
“[A] sort of chance meeting of Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane and the early Red Crayola in the Sahara Desert…”
As Shalabi Effect
- Shalabi Effect: Released by Alien8 Recordings, June 2000. Double CD set only.
- The Trial of St. Orange: Released by Alien8 Recordings, February 2002. CD only.
- Pink Abyss: Released by Alien8 Recordings, January 13, 2004. CD only.
- Unfortunately: Released by Alien8 Recordings, November 15, 2005. CD only.
- Feign to Delight Gaiety of Gods: Released by Annihaya, June 30, 2012. Double CD set only.
As Sam Shalabi
As Anthony von Seck
Sam Shalabi on Other Albums
- A Silver Mt. Zion - He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms… (2000, Constellation)