Sam Shalabi & Co. set their controls
for the heart of the Nile.




When West meets
East (or Middle Eastern), too often the musical results read like timid
travelogues of people too frightened to get off the tour bus. But in the right
hands — say, unflinching ones — the culture clash of scales, instrumentation,
cultural aesthetics, etc., can blend into a mix that feeds off the volatility
of most East-West meetings. Only here, nobody gets kicked off their ancestral
land, blown up, or beheaded.


Land of Kush
is the brainchild of Montreal
composer and musician Sam Shalabi, who for two decades now has worked in
multiple genres, from rock and punk to free jazz and avant-garde, under a
number of names including Shalabi Effect, Detention, Molasses, Nutsak and his
own. With Land of
Kush, Shalabi is
operating in the large-ensemble milieu, and the 30-plus member group Shalabi
gathered was modeled after Nasser-era Egyptian orchestras and also inspired by
an extended Shalabi visit to that country in 2006.


So what is this
new Land of Kush project, Against the Day? Shalabi says it was inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s
novel of the same name, and indeed it’s similarly formatted into five sections
that bear the corresponding chapter titles. Like the novel, its primary theme
is how the light of knowledge exposes only a world of chaos. This piece was performed
as a one-off highlight at a Montreal
summer festival last year until Constellation Records ( decided to bring the
massive undertaking into the studio to document it in high fidelity.


And good thing
for us, too. The three primary movements are themselves mini-suites, built around
solo vocalists (Jason Grimmer, Molly Sweeney and Radwan Moumneh) who composed
their own lyrics. Each narrative is trellised in the raga-like drones,
free-form horn explosions, synth noise, and Eastern tonal scales that Shalabi’s
been exploring for over two decades. The disembodied voices and creaking synths
of opener “The Light Over the Ranges” eventually emerge from primordial ooze
into forms we recognize via rebec-like violin, oud and guitar, and then bleed
into the primal percussion and synth drone of the majestic 14-minute “Iceland
Spar.” Grimmer’s deadpan narration adds to the buzzing-flies drone until
strings join to build a fever pitch recalling the scene in Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, where John
Malkovich’s character, in full Malaria delirium, eggs the players on to a
frenzy matching his own. Half-way through, sax and clarinet replace strings and
give the piece a more modern avant-garde character; eventually they give way to
an outro of desert-noir style lap steel.


As exhilarating
as that ride is, it’s just the warm-up for the 20 minutes of “Bilocations.” For
three minutes, the tremolo notes of Gavin Sheehan’s guitar absorb each other
like pooling water until a caravan of percussionists and Osami Shalabi’s oud
provide the form for Sweeney’s narrative, sung in an uncanny Earth Kitt
impersonation. “I can make myself ten times more ferocious,” she growls, and
the furious raga underneath gives you no pause to counter that. Dave Gossage
adds a breathy, Indian-flavored flute solo until at the 12-minute mark an
eruption of free-form horns and a key change recalibrate the song into a
haunting space-scape ala Ummagumma-era
Pink Floyd.


The final two
eight-minute pieces lean more avant-garde, though without losing their
micro-tonal and North African percussion foundations. The title track lifts off
in furious horn-noise, and Moumneh’s voice is buried beneath a pulse of
countless percussionists. But its groove is more taxing than hypnotic, and too
similar throughout to engender the same interest as previous cuts. “Rue du
Depart” essentially repeats the same formula, but does so at a relaxed pace
that allows the avant-garde strings, horn and synth squiggles to build a more
multi-dimensional sonic landscape until the whole record just dissipates into
the distance and quiet.


But by its
close, any suggestion of closure – that most Western of notions — bleeds away
like water in the desert, and you are left only exhausted from the journey.


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