[IMC-Audio] [Montreal] Hour: Cultural Crossroads; Musician Sam Shalabi

Stefan Christoff 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 
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. 
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 
the country.

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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