Stefan Christoff & Osama Shalabi – ‘родина’; and Sam Shalabi – ‘Music for Arabs’ [Review]

rodina‘родина’ (‘Rodina’) pins together two edges of the Montreal improvised music map. Stefan Christoff (St. Laurent Piano Project) and Osama Shalabi (aka Sam; the Shalabi Effect, Land of Kush) present two duets and one solo each for piano and oud. Having previously contributed a duet for Christoff’s ‘Duets for Abdelrazik’, the pair ease-off the hot tempos of that epic track and spread-out in two solos bookended by double-digit shared performances. On “Vadar River Song,” Christoff’s piano strikes a series of blue notes evoking the melancholia of Mike Oldfield and the PAL-vision aesthetic of ECM Records. Mourning in flourishes, these tinklings of piano shatter to the floor only briefly until the gauzy web of the oud begins netting these tones, cradling them like crystals. Earth and water, each hammered point is made resonant in the cross-talk of Shalabi’s strings, garrulous and often gaudy by comparison. From this overlay of grid and rhizome, “To Sophia” practically demands its own space: reigning in the affect, the solo semi-composition is to-the-point but self-paced, impressing upon someone some inside point which we the audience can only presume to exceed us (though I would have liked a bit more of a chance). Shalabi in turn responds, somewhat sheepish but mostly more sincere. From the modesty of the title, “One Oud” uses the same four minute space as Christoff’s solo to make a series of assertions in the way of melodic phrases. They are neither overly-ornate nor as atmospheric as the previous piece, but slur along with a calligrapher’s deft ease and an improviser’s will to always be building. As if now in sync, the second and final duet emerges seamlessly from Shalabi’s oud into a more harmonious dialogue. For nearly 20 minutes, the two prepare and compare themes – at times with the magnitudes of a martial art – and synthesize a very optimistic ascent out of these scrapbooked pages and into the stratosphere to which such difficult love-letters aspire.

MAJMUA021CD_PRODTake a hyper-leap across this classical musical space and we find Sam Shalabi in the so-called “field” compiling his ‘Music for Arabs’. Recorded in Cairo, the six tracks serve as a half-filed cabinet of curiosities from a modern archivist in a thick diaspora. With a resemblance to Luc Ferrari’s great piece of nostalgia concrète, ‘Son Mémorisé’, Shalabi captures soundscapes particular to Northern Africa. As the one-sheet aptly puts it, ‘Music for Arabs’ is “like Music for Airports for taxi drivers.” However, as the title suggests, included is the music of this place, a medium of agency which compliments the aural histories captured when we take such absorbent musical sheets outside the studio cube. This includes of course the alien sounds of Arabic instruments – including Shalabi’s skilled playing of the oud – but also the odd and avant-garde of the local musical enclaves, like the weird Casio-pop of “Luxor Dance,” the dissonant dialogue-collage of “Revolution,” and the dramatic book-ends “Music for Egyptians, Pt. I & II.” Fittingly, no-fly flâneur Alan Bishop (Sun City Girls, Sublime Frequencies) joins the handful of Shalabi’s local collaborators to entrench an American counterpoint with his familiar tenor of impassioned absurdity (seriously, he’s like the David Attenborough of the anti-world music scene). Besides being the most coherent, the ballad “The Enemy of My Enemy” is also the most comprehensive of the tracks, yammering its way through psychedelic quotations in Arab disco parlance, sooty broadcast voices, and the algebraic structures of Islamic spirituals. Though never an easy listen, readers will find the report most engrossing when approached as a concrète methodology.

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