Sunday, May 25, 2014

Sam Shalabi 13 questions

Sam Shalabi was born in Tripoli, Libya, in 1964 to Egyptian parents; his family emigrated to Canada's Prince Edward Island when he was five. He is a central node and one of the most active player in Montreal's blossoming improv scene. Over the last couple of years has been documented on releases by Shalabi Effect, Detention, Molasses, Nutsak, 'Gypt Gore, Balai Mécanique, Cindy, Land Of Kush, Molasses, Nutsak, Po and A Silver Mt. Zion, a trio with David Kristian and Alexandre St-Onge, and one important collaboration with pioneer egyptian composer Halim el Dabh in The barking dog sextet in Montreal 2007. One cannot count the many projects he is a part of. 


Apart from Shalabi Effect, some of his remarkable solo works include Luteness (Squint Fucker Press, deleted), On Hashish (Alien8 Recordings) inspired by the writings of Walter Benjamin, of course Osama, his investigation of arabophobia in a ’post-9-11 world’, the contemporary Arabic pop in Eid (2008 Alien8 Recordings) and the last Music for Arabs, released in 2014 for Majmua Music. His style ranges from freeform psychedelic rock to the most oddball abstract performance. Although mostly known as a guitarist, the highly versatile Shalabi also performs on oud and a variety of other instruments.

He is best known as a founding member of Shalabi Effect, group that began in 1996 as a duo composed of Anthony Seck and himself, and now include Anthony Seck (electric guitar, lapsteel, moog, keyboards), Sam Shalabi (oud, electronics, toys), Alexandre St. Onge (double & electric bass, electronics, voices) and Will Eizlini (percussion, electronics, trumpet). The duo played around town for a couple of years and released a cassette recording. In 1998 Shalabi Effect added Alexandre St. Onge on double bass and Will Eizlini on tablas. That year Aural Florida was recorded at Red Rocket Studios in Montreal, and was originally slated to be a "side" of a split CD produced by Alien8 Recordings. Nearing Y2K, Shalabi Effect recorded for a second time at Sound Of One Hand studios in Ottawa, and by July 2000 had released Shalabi Effect/st, which incorporated a remixed version of Aural Florida embedded among the 131 minutes. Shalabi Effect/st continues in the tradition of live improvisation based on Middle Eastern modes but Shalabi Effect's approach has become more experimental with the inclusion of strange semi broken electronics and a variety of odd instruments most of which happened to be lying around in the studio where it was recorded.

Shalabi Effect performances have become more and more full as members have been bringing more and more toys to the shows. Expect to see lots of live electronics, a few strange instruments from remote forests, a variety of percussion and drone makers. You might also see a screening of old NFB (National Film Board of Canada) Nature movies that are often as experimental as the music. 

He has collaborated, between others, with musicians as Halim el Dabh, Adam Frank, Alexandre St-Onge, Loren MazzaCane Connors, Dora Bleu, Tom Carter, Stefan Christoff, Matana Roberts, Nicolas Caloia, Philémon Girouard,Andre AsselinChris BurnsHoward ChackowiczThierry AmarWill Glass,Jacques GravelJesse Levine, Evan Parker, Fluffy ErskineJoellen HousegoMike MoyaNorsola JohnsonThierry Amar, Alexandre St-Onge, David Kristian, Tim Berne, Charles Papasof, Alan Bishop, John Butcher, Lukas Ligeti, Hassan Khan, Robert Lowe, Tarek Atoui, Khyam Allami, Paed Conca, Omar Dewachi, Malcom Goldstein, Kazuyuki Kashino( K.K. Null) and Frank Gratkowski.


Feldspar by Matana Roberts (sax alto), Sam Shalabi (guitare électrique), Nicolas Caloia (contrebasse)

Which was the first and the last record you bought with your own money?  What were other early records you bought?

The first music I heard was Egyptian classical music- my dad had a huge collection and would blast stuff every morning when I was a kid. Then when I was about 9 or 10 I would go to the university music library in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, where we moved to from Egypt, and sit in those little cubicles with the headphones on  and listen to vinyl, just going by the record covers ..and the two that really struck me were 'Silver apples of the moon' by Morton Subotnick and 'Imaginary landscapes' by John Cage (they both had really cool covers! )... The Beatles were always around in people's record collections but it was only later that I got into them... the first group that really caught my attention was Kiss- I was fanatical about them... I was into cheesy metal and disco too.

...then by accident while listening to a show called '90 minutes with a bullet', which played the number 1 songs from all over the world I discovered the Sex Pistols- 'God Save The Queen' was number one in England but it was banned from the airwaves there.. they played on Canadian radio anyways... it basically changed everything... when the album 'Never mind the bollocks' came out I asked my dad to buy it for me as my birthday present and I remember not really understanding what was happening to me as I listened to it... it actually gave me these feverish nightmares and I distinctly remember waking up the next morning changed somehow. I was a different person... the first record I bought with my own money might have been eithier a Ramones ( 'Leave home') or Elvis Costello ( 'My aim is true')  From then on I mainly bought punk rock albums which were really scarce where I grew up (this is around 77 - 78)... I'd just buy anything that looked punk and was able to find odd things like issues of Creem magazine with Suicide or Patti Smith in it... I remember buying a copy of the fanzine 'Sniffin Glue' at a K- Mart!!... how it got there remains a mystery... the last album I bought would be that amazing The Art of David Tudor (1963-1992) box set of his electronic music.

 What do you remember about your first instrument?

Not much... my older brother bought a cheap electric guitar and then I wanted one too- I must have been maybe 14 or 15 and my dad got me one too... I think mine was like a Squire or Kay six string electric... I was really into Ricky Wilson (B52's) at the time and noticed his guitar on the inside of the 1st album- it only had 4 strings- the D and G string missing and so I followed suit and for the first year I played guitar like that, with those two strings missing...

On a Steady Diet of  Hash, Bread & Salt by Sam Shalabi

What gear do you use?

 Just my Gibson 335, which I've had for over 20 years and a Boss Heavy Metal pedal ..I play ud as well and had one made for me by an Iraqi luthier... I'm def not a gear head!

Which work of your own are you most surprised by, and why?

I guess there's a few ways to be surprised by what you've done if you are both a composer and improviser. Composing music should be a surprise or else I tend to abandon it or think less of it...
I think being an 'experimental' musician (which might be a meaningless term at this point) means that you have to challenge yourself with each piece you do and so there is hopefully that feeling after it's done of: what the fuck is that?... that's the best case scenario. So, I'll say 'Music For Arabs' is the most surprising right now... but there's also listening to what you've done from years ago, when you were elsewhere as a musician and you wonder 'what the fuck was that?'...

I think when music is working well, it's surprising in that sense... as an improviser, that's what you strive for-... transport or going somewhere else and taking people with you, hopefully... with Shalabi Effect- where our relationship at this point is almost telepathic- we've often felt possessed or inhabited by inexplicable forces  that we simply try to steer or follow and not get in the way of too much- in that group at the end of a performance or recording we sometimes just laugh our asses off because we have no idea what we've just done... much of what I've done is surprising to me but I certainly don't expect anyone else to be surprised by it.

What do you need from music?

I'm not exactly sure what I need from it- but whatever that might be, it's given me over and over... it's the gift that keeps giving... it's kept me relatively sane and alive since I was a child. Zappa said 'music is the best'.

What quality do you admire most in a musician?

The ability to listen is huge... to me that's the highest kind of 'virtuosity ' there is... and openness... an openness to the present... I suppose... I admire the same things in non- musicians too. I'm attracted by musicians who are not complacent, who are willing to confuse or piss people off and are searching and questioning and committed to finding a way to express their own voice because ultimately that's what everyone wants- to communicate who they are in their own way.

As long as someone has something of themselves to say... the rest of it is just fluff in a way... musicians without a sense of humor, humility, guts or those who are just boring careerists, no matter how 'talented' or 'important', I tend to stay away from.

Do you prefer play alone or in a group? What is the difference for you?

I prefer groups mostly... it's only recently that I've seriously thought about playing solo as I've never really known what to play in a solo context... though with ud, I've found it easier to perform solo... it's also because I make and write a lot of music alone that playing with people is so rewarding.

What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?  

The benefits are the prospect of accessibility and exposure, both for the musician and listener; it's much easier to hear and be heard. Beyond that.

I think it's had a mostly negative effect... some people will say it's led to a more "democratic" music culture but I think it's led to a kind of triumph of the lowest common denominator... in a way, I think it's led to what Walter Benjamin would have called 'barbarism' in perception and creativity... like much social media, it amplifies tendencies and attitudes that might have been seen as banal or cheap, disposable and has validated them-turned that into the most commonplace way that people perceive and access music... the fact that it's harder to make money for your music is part of it but not central because it's all just a part of this 'evolution' in that secretly everyone wants a 'free lunch' - no one wants to pay for anything if they don't have to,which I can totally understand -but the thing that's often forgotten and glossed over is that other people and institutions still demand to, and do get paid -so the idea that culture and art should be free that's perpetuated by people who have incomes outside of the culture industry (or make money within it as "administrators") and those gate keepers and 'critics and theorists' who already have an income or are paid tenure or positions to implicitly perpetuate this kind of 'selective anarchism or anti- capitalism', creates the illusion that "everyone is doing it" .


It would be wonderful if that fantasy was true... digital technology hasn't destroyed hierarchy in music anymore than it has in capitalism itself- it's just shifted things around to a point where some people get paid more and others get paid less (sound familiar?) and as long as most people can have 'free stuff' it feels like some version of egalitarianism... but the benefit of it is that music that deserves to be heard can be and music that might be impossible to hear, can be, even if that audience is tiny... It's also made live music more important, which is always good... another negative though, is how people hear and listen to music and how musicians increasingly make music that spoon feeds that 'new paradigm' which is a whole other matter that I won't get into now because it will just firmly convince whoever reads this that I am a cranky old Luddite .

Depict the sound you're still looking for. 

As Duke Ellington said "Jazz is the sound of surprise" - I think that's what I'm after in music in general.

Which do you translate into music from other disciplines?

Writing and literature has been a parallel influence on me since when I started to play... I like the sense of time and structure in writing and poetry, and how writers experiment with it in a macro and micro way...

I like the way time is sped up and slowed down or frozen in writing and how it forces you into other ways of experiencing time... I like the fact it has a roundabout connection to speaking, which music does too but in a completely different way.

What is some valuable advice that someone has given to you in the past?

If you want be a musican, it's the best thing in the world.
If you want to be a professional musican, it's the worst thing in the world.

Tell me one musical work which has provoked a change in your music.

There's a few... obviously hearing Sex Pistols started everything for me... then White Light,White Heat by Velvet Underground... Doc At a The Radar Station by Beefheart- Metal Box by P.I.L. kind of opened up my ears permanently and connected my weird subconscious past of Arabic Music to what I'd eventually persue later... hearing ' the Rite of Spring' by Stravinsky, Morton Feldman and Robert Ashley completely opened up how I thought of writing music... and then Tauhid by Pharoah Sanders led me into jazz... but there's so many "path changers" for me... Oum Khalsoum brought me back to Arabic Music... Ahmed Adawyya, showed me the connection between Punk Rock and Arabic music, and  In a Babylonian Mood by Munir Bechir, really started me playing and studying ud... I imagine hearing Cage and Subtonick at such a young age might have done something to me too.

What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?

I'm recording a trio album with Alan Bishop and Maurice Louca in Cairo under the name The Dwarves Of East Agouza. Shalabi Effect is finishing up our 6 album. Alan Bishop and I have an album of guitar and sax duets coming out soon. I'm also preparing music for solo electric guitar and duo with Stefan Christof is releasing a second album soon of ud and piano duets..writing music for Land Of Kush..and writing music for a guitar and bass duo with Jonah Fortune..a bunch more stuff on the horizon which I can't remember right now. There's a new box set called ' The Middle East box set' coming out on the Italian label Sagitarius- it's 4 vinyls and I'm on 2- one is the Omarorcestra with Sharif Shenaoui, Fadi Tabbal, Maurice Louca, Osman Arabi, Tony Elahi, Charbel Haber and Umut Çaglar - the other is a ' Three cities ' (Beirut, Cairo and Istanbul) improv album with some of those same people and Mazen Kerbaj and Ozun Usta, between others

Selected Discography

1998 Shalabi Effect (Self-released Cassette)
1999 Loren MazzaCane Connors / Alexandre St-Onge & Sam Shalabi - Amazezine Magazine #5 (7")  MAZE-02-A 2009 
1999 Molasses You'll Never Be Well No More Fancy FANCYCD1 


2000 Sam Shalabi Luteness Squint Fucker Press squint 00B 
2000 Molasses Trilogie: Toil & Peaceful Life Fancy FANCYCD2 


2000 Shalabi Effect Alien8 Recordings ALIENCD22
2001 Kristian, Shalabi, St-Onge - Kristian, Shalabi, St-Onge Alien8 Recordings ALIENCD28 


2001 Sam Shalabi On Hashish Alien8 Recordings ALIENCD29 
2002 Shalabi Effect The Trial Of St-Orange Alien8 Recordings ALIENCD32

2003 VV.AA. Montreal Free! No Type IMNT 0306-09

2003 Molasses A Slow Messe Fancy FANCYCD5

2004 Sam Shalabi Osama Alien8 Recordings ALIENCD 037 


2004 Molasses Trouble At Jinx Hotel Alien8 Recordings
2004 Shalabi Effect Pink Abyss Alien8 Recordings ALIENCD42
2005 Shalabi Effect Unfortunately Alien8 Recordings ALIENCD 061


2007 Adam Frank & Sam Shalabi Overpass! A Melodrama Alien8 Recordings ALIENCD 068 
2008 Sam Shalabi Eid Alien8 Recordings ALIENCD74 


2009 Magneticring and Osama Shalabi Feed And Seed Records SEED 11 
2009 Land of Kush Against The Day Constellation


2009 Nutsak Failed Musician Signed By Force SBF006CD
2009 VV.AA. Send + Receive: 10 Years Of Sound Send + Receive Editions 
2010 Land of Kush Monogamy Constellation


2011 Dora Bleu & Tom Carter & Sam Shalabi - Circle Of Crosses Tequila Sunrise Records, Fire Museum Records TS-12013, FM-19 
2012 Shalabi Effect Feign To Delight Gaiety Of Gods Annihaya Records END 05/06


2013 Stefan Christoff & Osama Shalabi родина Howl! 
2013 Land of Kush The Big Mango Constellation

2014 Matana Roberts, Sam Shalabi, Nicolas Caloia Feldspar Tour De Bras TDB9008cd 
2014 Sam Shalabi Music For Arabs Majmua Music mm-21