Sam Shalabi is one of my favorite human beings, that is, IF he must be reduced to the status of "human" for all you naïve and sensitive people who cannot EVER handle the truth, so we'll leave it at that. You may have previously experienced him via his many musical disciplines over the past quarter century: The Shalabi Effect, Land of Kush, Nutsack, Molasses, Detention, Po, 'Gypt Gore, or simply through releases or performances under his own name. He has also been composing soundtrack music for a growing number of independent films produced in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. He lives in Cairo and has just released a new album entitled Music for Arabs. We live in the same apartment building so I decided to walk up three flights of stairs and ask him some questions about this new and unusual album.
Alan Bishop: In October your Land of Kush project released The Big Mango, what I think is perhaps the best psychedelic rock record made in a very long time. And now you immediately follow up with Music for Arabs, an album that doesn't resemble The Big Mango at all. There are many differences between the two, not the least being the fact that you are playing all of the instruments on Music for Arabs but you do not actually appear as a player on The Big Mango. When did you begin working on the new record and what inspired the project?
Sam Shalabi: The inspiration for the album was the same in a way as The Big Mango, except maybe from an opposite direction (Dark Side Of The Mango?...) kind of what was happening in Egypt once I got there after the revolution and up until a few months ago...most my solo stuff tends to be done all by me instrumentally, but I use other people's voices, usually in a non-singing capacity and in a way the wordy elements of my solo stuff are like cut ups: 99 percent of the words are things I've heard around me and found & maybe resonate in some abstract way and they form themselves into a narrative by themselves, and this was no exception...I think my solo stuff tends to be more about a bunch of voices and ideas crashing up against each other to maybe see if something I might not be 'in control' of rises up, and what was (and is) going on in Cairo basically seemed to write the album in that a lot of the album (like much of my stuff) is about people around me (and myself) going through their lives in the context of bizarre & beautiful circumstances.
AB: Do you find it easier and more conductive to compose music while based in Cairo or does it not matter where you are?
SS: Absolutely...Cairo is easily the best city in the world to compose music in, it's a non-stop funhouse of inspiration and madness with just the perfect amount of introspection...I mean, I can write anywhere but the kind of fuel that Cairo gives me, is perfect for me: it opens me up and challenges me in ways that lead my writing into places that would otherwise be inaccessible to me...
“It's also a very playful fuck you to that whole cultural colonialism of the serious musicologist...”
AB: I hear you wanna dance and have been to France...why don't you like to sing your own songs?
SS: I've even baked a few cakes in my time too, as a pastry chef...I prefer other people singing my songs...I used to do it but my abilities are quite limited and I like what happens when someone interprets what I write... I never imagine myself singing my own music even though vocal music is maybe what I love the most.
AB: When I see an album title like Music for Arabs, I immediately laugh and find it extremely amusing, as though you could find other albums out there called Music for Aryans or Music for Dravidians. And the usual academically minded albums of the past would have used the word "of" instead of "for". Is the title a humorous stab at ethnomusicology?
SS: I guess it is what it is, as Popeye might say...I actually felt I was making Arabic Music that I wanted to hear and almost felt it was saying to myself, my friends (and enemies too!) as a way of saying: Lighten Up & Open Up - have some fun and fuck around with this music...in a way, I think Arabic Music has so many un-trodden pathways and I wanted to maybe explore and celebrate one of them in a way that made sense to me in an honest way... It's also a very playful fuck you to that whole cultural colonialism of the serious musicologist, who sees Arabic music as this happy little palatable 'entertainment' for westerners...aaaand for The Serious Custodians Of Tradition in the Arab World - who implicitly and sometimes explicitly feel that someone like me, with my Egyptian-Canadian background, isn't making 'real' Arabic music because I'm not a real Arab....So to all that I say: let's celebrate the abundance of what's possible and to the bitter haters & hacks: fuck you...plus I was thinking of that Brian Eno album too...
AB: So who came up with the term "Egypsy Kings" you always use (to describe the modern Egyptian style of 'oriental sufi jazz fusion' music permeating & polluting the Cairo music scene in recent history).....was that you?
SS: I believe it was me! It may be my shining life moment to have coined a classification for a genre of Egyptian shlock.
AB: Speaking of schlock, why do so many Egyptian musicians like the band CAMEL? (if you ask Egyptian musicians over the age of 30 what their favorite Western bands are, a high percentage will answer exactly the same: "Pink Floyd and Camel!")
““I'd say it's more like phone sex...””
SS: Beats me...I guess if you're gonna go proggy and have to deal with a bewildering sea of prog poop, then fixating on a reassuring name or concept might be the way to go. For instance, I think if we started a prog band called Poutine, we would be super feted in Quebec.
AB: Well you are continually busy with your projects and I'm continually busy with mine....we live in the same building and we've only managed to rehearse twice together in the past year....when are we finally making a 'prog' record together?
SS: God...I hope soon...you are one of my favorite artists, people and collaborators and it is a bit of a crime that we've barely scraped the surface of what we can do...our two long co- compositions that we did together were so telepathic & easy and creative and the results were supremely satisfying and demented...it'll happen again...we just need General Sisi to recognize us as the cultural treasures that we are, and ensconce us in the presidential palace as The State Composers...sort of like when Nasser forced Abdel Wahab and Oum Khalsoum to collaborate together.
AB: Did you know that there are approximately 90,000 dwarfs in Egypt...and not ONE of them is holding a parliamentary seat or high government post...
SS: I did!... but I learned it from you... I recently was on a bus in Montreal and saw a dwarf that I had a crush on a while ago, who I used to see at gigs... society needs more dwarfs... more visible dwarves... most humans in public space are visually dull, I think...dwarfs add something special...I honestly think the world would be a better place if it was run by dwarfs...female dwarves...really.
AB: If, as you have stated, The Big Mango is a love letter to Cairo, then what kind of a letter is Music for Arabs? Or is it a letter at all?
SS: I'd say it's more like phone sex...
“I think it's ironic that the older, dead players like Bechir or Farid Al Atrache were and are more adventurous than 99 percent of players now.”
AB: Since you're based in Cairo, and referring to the title of the first and last tracks, why not simply call the album Music for the Egyptians?
SS: I'm an inclusive sort of guy...if I'm going to offend or please Egyptians, I may as well offend or please all Arabs. The 2 Egyptian tracks (Music for the Egyptians Part 1 & 2) are in fact pieces that were very much about things I felt in Cairo too...
AB: How long have you been smoking Viceroys?
SS: Hmm... over 10 years now...
AB: This record features a 20 minute long oud track as a finale. It sounds like a modern version of Munir Bechir's Babylon Mood - has that same spooky exploratory vibe. Why hasn't the oud broken through internationally as an instrument that is highly recognizable, perhaps like the Sitar, or I could rephrase this to: SHOULDN'T the oud have been recalibrated into an instrument of international stature by now and do you have any ideas why it has not been? Or, why have we been deprived of an international ambassador of the oud to rival Ravi Shankar for the Sitar? And Hamza el Din doesn't count!
SS: I think what people do with oud is really quite conservative mostly...there are players that I love and admire but the instrument seems a little stuck somewhere...I think it's ironic that the older, dead players like Bechir or Farid Al Atrache, were and are more adventurous than 99 percent of players now...for my part, I'm just trying to play what I hear and feel and use it in the same way I use guitar but in a way specific to the instrument and it's a pretty personal approach that I imagine most oud players would scoff at but I don't really care...I love the instrument and think there's so much unmapped terrain in there - compositionally too - and basically I'm not sure if I'm adding anything significant to that domain but I'm just going ahead anyways, I guess...I don't think anyone needs permission to fuck around with an instrument or a tradition...that's rule número uno in punk rock and I wholeheartedly still abide by that...
AB: It seems you're always working on someone's film soundtrack....is anyone keeping tabs on this stuff? Who is documenting the Sam Shalabi discography? Or do you prefer to keep your musical career in the shadows of mystery?
SS: It's starting here and there...some of my older stuff has just been reissued...some of it, I honestly want to disappear...some of it nobody wants to touch anyways and so it gets lost...but I'm ok really...I think what's coming up (for me) is more interesting...I find it hard to listen to older stuff, even though people are regularly telling me I should be more diligent about preserving it...I figure though I'm giving purpose to some future music geeks life in that maybe in 50 years I'll be 'rediscovered' and someone will have the horrible (but life affirming) task of finding all my music again.