[IMC-Audio] [Montreal] Hour: Cultural Crossroads; Musician Sam Shalabi
christoff at resist.ca
Sat Mar 8 19:12:36 PST 2008
Hour: Cultural Crossroads; Musician Sam Shalabi
by Stefan Christoff
Hour's new in-depth interview series featuring
the voices of critical cultural actors in Montreal
* Listen to a track from Shalabi's latest album at the link above...
Sam Shalabi, a key player in Montreal's free improv scene, loves to explore
everything from freeform psych-rock to abstract performance. On his latest solo
album, Eid, developed on trips between Montreal and Cairo, the musician
continues his exploration of a diverse range of musical styles, offering
striking cross-continental compositions rooted in his own personal reflections
as a Montreal musician working in the Middle East in a time of war.
A meditation on cultural reflections of identity, culture and politics, Eid
features the influence of Cairo, one of the world's great cities. On the album,
Shalabi has composed "songs for singers," featuring appearances from Montreal
musician Radwan Moumneh, who sings in Arabic, as well as internationally
celebrated recording artist Lhasa de Sela and Constellation Records recording
artist Elizabeth Anka Vajagic. While Shalabi is known best as a guitarist, on
Eid he also performs on oud and a variety of other instruments.
The following in-depth interview, recorded in Montreal, is an attempt to
explore the ideas and cross-cultural reflections woven into the creation of
Hour: Can you talk about how your time in Egypt, in Cairo, one of the great
cities of the world, influenced the themes and music on your latest album?
Sam Shalabi: Thematically the album was informed by an effort to see how North
America looked from the Middle East or Egypt, 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. These themes or questions really inform the new album.
In a bizarre way, part of the reason I wanted to leave Montreal, or why I
travelled to Cairo, was because it was clear that certain things were
finishing, psychologically or emotionally or creatively, here in Montreal.
Things were at a standstill.
Also, upon arriving in Cairo, I had this feeling of things finishing - or in
decline - in North America ever since 2001. In North America there was a mad
scramble to stop this decline, this sense of ending, by the powers that be. I
travelled to Egypt with this feeling, wanting to see if there was validity to
it and if people in Egypt felt the same thing.
Hour: How did North America or Montreal look from Cairo, one of the important
capitals of the Arab world? How did this vision influence the pieces of music
that you ended up composing?
Shalabi: My first point of contact in Egypt was this fellow Abdu, who I was
very lucky to meet because he is an activist, a secular activist, but is very,
very Egyptian, a proud Egyptian who does a great amount political work in
[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.
>From this point on, I met with artists who were part of the same political work
or network, musicians who were in a sense a mirror image of artistic circles I
work with in Montreal, although definitely musicians who worked on art and
music Egyptian in nature.
In terms of developing this sense that things here in North America are
[somehow] dissipating or are in a state of decline, it's a feeling that didn't
change for me in Egypt. However, being in Cairo allowed me to develop different
perspectives on this.
Meeting these artists and activists made it clear that this dichotomy of East
vs. West, or anything so stupid as Muslim vs. Christian, or U.S. vs. Middle
East, fundamentally doesn't exist. Many artists in Cairo drew a [connection]
between themselves and people in North America doing art that challenges
mainstream culture. A great deal of empathy exists between us, as there is a
common understanding on things that are damaging both to the Arab world and to
people in North America.
It's clear that political events occurring in the Arab world are fundamentally
connected to events occurring here in North America. One person in Cairo
described North America as "the eye of the hurricane." [There's a sense in
Cairo] that this 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
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.
In Egypt people are more hopeful but also more fearful, as this state of
emergency is in their face. Despite this difference in realities, people in
Egypt could appreciate that good things were happening, that people were doing
important work, both politically and culturally in North America, which was in
essence very similar to their own work in Egypt.
Hour: Often your music sounds like a state of emergency. Can you talk a bit
more about how the contemporary cultural and political layers of Egyptian
society informed the compositions on your new album?
Shalabi: Musically, Egypt had a huge influence [on me] because music in Cairo
is much more unusual and unpredictable than music from North America. Also it's
important to note that I travelled to Egypt at a very fragile time when the
government had just staged "democratic elections," which they certainly
weren't. So a great deal of tension was in the air.
[Egyptian military leader and president Muhammad Hosni] Mubarak was trying to
appease Western political power through holding "democratic elections," while
claiming that the Egyptian state wasn't censoring the media any longer.
Elections happened, resulting in Mubarak's victory, but that was most probably
A backlash was happening in Egypt when I was in the country, as many social
projects that Mubarak pointed to as examples of the "new freedom" of Egyptian
society during the election, including independent media, became a target for
the government after the elections. Many activists faced interrogation quickly
after the elections and censorship became stronger. At the same time, the
Muslim Brotherhood won a huge number of seats in parliament, which scared the
government while rattling large parts of Egyptian society, who are strongly
Secular movements are enemy number one in Egypt because the Muslim Brotherhood
are getting more and more powerful, [and they are] clearly not secularists.
[...] Mubarak orders repression against secular movements. But it's mainly
secular movements that are actually interested in building real democracy in
the country, and for this reason they are treated as a threat.
Throughout Cairo there was a bizarre feeling everywhere that something had to
happen in Egypt, that people had had enough of Mubarak and his regime, although
people were fearful because it's a military state. At the same time, the Muslim
Brotherhood is attracting huge numbers of poor Egyptians in the slums, and
becoming more powerful, which is a reality that many people are afraid of in
All these debates were transpiring while I was in Egypt, so that state of
emergency that Walter Benjamin wrote about is present in Egypt today.
Hour: Your music could be described as out of control at times, while also
being very carefully composed. So, in this sense, there is an interesting
relationship between the traditional definitions of composition and your
version, which is obviously quite innovative, quite different. Also your new
album brings together different musical elements, customs and styles - from
Arabic singing to electric guitar, but all wrapped together in a unique way.
Can you tell me more about your composition process?
Shalabi: Things I enjoy about improvisation can be understood through the work
of a composer named Morton Feldman, who was a huge, huge influence on my work,
although my work doesn't sound similar. The thing that I love musically about
Feldman, and something he started working on in the 1950s, is the concept of
making random music, music that is totally random in sound.
In terms of composing, many of the ideas that people use in improvisation I try
to apply in composition. Certain things that one would do while improvising,
like quick musical decisions made on the spot, I attempt to bring into my
composing work, despite the fact that some of the material I use could be
considered non-musical [laughing].
In working on my own composition, the song or the piece has to be about
something. I can't simply make a piece of music and then decide what it's
about. For Eid, that "something" informing the music bounces between a
Western/non-Western perspective, and attempts to draw a line between these two
points - a meeting point that is [too] often clouded by dogmatic political
garbage. On this album I attempted to explore if there are points of fusion
between my life in North America and my time in Egypt as an Egyptian.
One song on the album is called Honey Limbo and much of the album is about
being in limbo. Perhaps this will sound a little Marxist, but it's important to
note that all things in societies are intimately connected - the
infrastructure, the economic and political functioning of a society. At a time
when things are getting desperate, or are in decline within North America,
there [will] be a reaction to it culturally. The new album Eid is a part of
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