Trying to understand a philosophical conversation between instruments is not always the easiest thing. When it’s good, the tension and harmony between instruments is so eloquent that words seem to float off the notes, evoking visceral scenes. Other times instruments clash and trip over each other, or leave too much space for realistic conversation to be held.
But a good instrumental conversation – between piano and oud – can be found in Egyptian-Canadian musician Sam Shalabi’s recent album Tiar al-Sharia (Flying Street). It’s a result of an ongoing collaboration with musician Stefan Christoff. They released родина (rodina) in 2013, while the more powerful Flying Street appeared in the last days of 2014 under the Howl Art Collective. The two albums are two parts of the same project, and a reflection of their discussions surrounding the role music plays in the struggles for social activism when it’s not overtly lyrical, like punk or rap.
“Our duo began as a friendship that grew out of long conversations about music, social justice and politics and then evolved naturally into this musical dialogue,” Shalabi wrote in The Wire magazine. “The core of our approach is to continue that conversation and hear how these two mother instruments (maybe the two most weighted down by their own respective traditions and tropes) might speak directly and simply to each other through improvisation.”
I was skeptical when I read this, as contemporary instrumental music is often assumed to hold a conversational quality. But Flying Street does a pretty good job of living up to the writing published around it.
The pairing of the instruments is a negotiation in itself because of the different scales they are associated with: Christoff’s piano, the heartbeat of western music from the chromatic scale to the diatonic scale, and Shalabi’s oud, on the Arabic maqqam scale with its signature micro-notes.
The idea of piano and oud together is still pretty novel, and such duets, like Anouar Brahem’s gorgeous Le pas du chat Noir, tend to be led by the piano with the oud in tow. (Brahem also plays very few micro-notes on the oud, using it more like a classical Western guitar than exploiting its rich traditions.)
The four-part Flying Street carries an energy of anti-orientalist rebellion due to the oud often leading piano.
The opener, Elephantine, is named for the Nubian island in Upper Egypt. From the first pluck of the oud, the maqqam scale is set in motion down the Nile, and the piano is left to find its voice on the journey. After a shy entrance, it finds its way amid a river of micro-notes – there are moments of panic, but the flow between the two instruments begins, pointing toward a historical reverie.
In the next track, Flying Street, the oud again speaks first, but the piano soon comes in to carry along a floating melody that feels improvised but sure of where it’s going.
The piano finally takes the lead in Blue Soon, but I find the solo to be a bit empty. That said, it does lead to some very interesting tensions, and a bit of discord. At one point it almost sounds like the two instruments are in different playing fields, but before the two instruments escape each other, the piano’s reverberations fill the space between the jagged oud and the chopping keys and, by the end, we find it giving its own monologue again.
The closing piece, Revolution in Orbit, is the longest, at over 16 minutes and the most complex. Revolving with dizzying effect, the end sounds similar to the beginning, sounding to me like a testament to the Egyptian revolution.
“In a sense they [the two albums] are asking a lot of questions about what one’s identity is in colonial Canada, whether it’s one or two generations after your original point of arrival on these lands,” says Christoff. “We can see this very fascist attempt to define pointblank an American or Canadian. But identities are complex, and multifaceted, and I think that’s something we don’t explore or honor enough.”
“A part of the big musical idea was attempting to break away from the clichés associated with these two instruments and their histories,” says Shalabi. “So we tried to look at the traditions of improvisation in western music coming out of everything from free jazz, noise, or textural music that’s kind of abstract – to see how to work with the traditions of takht music.”
Shalabi, 50, generally seems to be a bit of a musical pioneer. He has co-founded several performance projects, including his Shalabi Effect and the Land of Kush ensemble, in addition to making several solo albums and his more activism-driven work with Christoff. He is prolific, with thousands of songs released on several experimental or avant-garde record labels, mostly based in Montreal. The diversity of his work and collaborations give Shalabi a chameleon character. Sometimes I feel his work could be tighter with more direction, but he’s taking on a big challenge in the interplay between his two musical identities.
In Land of Kush, Shalabi shows us his raucously experimental rock side. For a large ensemble (between 21-40 instruments and singers depending on the performance) he has meticulously composed and arranged three albums. The project reflects an abstract, almost disorienting sense of contemporary Arabic music infused with psychedelics, the trippy nay on Iceland Spar contrasting with The Pit (Part 1) off Big Mango, which sounds like experimental jazz with English lyrics sung overtop.
The Shalabi Effect is more of a collective in that there is no main composer – although they have done albums that were composed in advance, the performances and recordings are largely improvised. The sounds differ from album to album, but are often atmospheric, ambient tunes that provide a soundtrack for contemplation.
Shalabi has also released solo albums on Montreal-based label Alien8. Chief among them is On Hashish (2001), dedicated to Walter Benjamin by means of free jazz and lots of space. Shalabi describes Osama (2003) as “protest music about Arabophobia in a post 9-11 world.” Eid (2008) features more lyrics, in what he describes as a “modern Arabic pop record.”
Living in and out of Egypt his whole life, Shalabi has also worked with other experimental musicians in Cairo including Mahmoud Refat, Nadah El Shazly (who is set to appear on his next Shalabi Effect album), Maurice Louca and Alan Bishop.
These last two and Shalabi recently launched a new project called the Dwarves of East Agouza, which he promises to be different from their previous music, and “more insular and esoteric, but also very accessible, in a strange way.”