Sam Shalabi

Sam Shalabi
For much of the last decade, improv impresario Sam Shalabi has been a pivotal player in a community of Montreal musicians that circle around the Alien8 and Constellation labels. Like Alexandre St-Onge, one of his frequent collaborators, Shalabi thrives on the city’s history of intermingling bands. Apart from his solo work, he heads up the psych-driven Shalabi Effect and has contributed to Godspeed affiliates Molasses, as well as more tangential outings with Balai Mécanique, the free-jazz trio Po, and ’Gypt Gore. Shalabi’s numerous musical pursuits are the mark of a musician who would rather not sit still. "I don’t care so much for honing a style,” he says, during a conversation in his kitchen. "I’d rather be involved in something where I don’t know so much what I’m doing, and learn about it while I’m doing it. I’ve tried to never do the same thing. Usually when I finish an album I have no intention of following it or reproducing it. When I finished Osama [his 2003 album for Alien8], it took me a while to figure out that I wanted to work with singers.”

Of course, given his deep history in improv, the vocalists Shalabi chose to collaborate with on his new album Eid (also on Alien8) weren’t about to sing your average songs. From Arabic pop singer Radwon Moumneh to Quebecois chanteuse Lhasa de Sela to local indie friends Elizabeth Anka Vajajick and Katie Moore, Shalabi approaches singers who are willing to behave like instruments in a larger production.

"These are all singers who are all willing to go outside of what they normally do,” Shalabi admits. "For some of them, it was a stretch to do what they did on the album, and they’re looking for an opportunity to do that. And that ends up being the case with a lot of people I work with, that they’re looking to stretch their boundaries.”

On Eid, those boundaries stretch far beyond Montreal to Shalabi’s long-time interest in Arabic music. The turn toward Middle Eastern song structure and instrumentation has always had a kinship with his passions for transcendental genres like free jazz, psych, and improv, but throughout the decade each Shalabi effort has introduced more and more overt references to his Egyptian roots. On Eid, those references overtake the album to deliver what is ostensibly Sam Shalabi’s most traditionally Arabic album to date.

The Middle Eastern influence is one he actively pursued this time, beginning with a seven-month journey back to Alexandria, the city of his birth. "I ended up writing most of the album there,” he says, a fact that accounts for the album’s heavy Arabic instrumentation. Apart from the singers, the most distinctive sounds of Eid come from the oud, a lute-like string instrument that forms the foundation of much Arabic music. "I was given an oud by my dad years ago, as a gift. I was very intrigued by it. I knew the sound and was familiar enough with certain things in Arabic music that I could get something out of it. I became obsessed with trying to figure out the instrument, which led to becoming really obsessed with Arabic music. The nuts and bolts of it, the culture surrounding it, everything.”

At this point, Shalabi takes me into his studio and shows off the oud that formed much of the foundation for Eid. "This is an oud I had made for me by an Iraqi luthier. This is oud number four, which was built for me after another one was accidentally broken. The body is smaller than an Egyptian oud and the gourd is smaller, so the sound is different. The construction of the neck is also different, so the oriental, Arabic notes are in a slightly different place than on a different-sized oud.”

Listening to Eid, the oud sounds like a natural progression of the improv Shalabi has always pursued, though the instrument provides a cultural texture to his work that the guitar hasn’t delivered in the past. "The big difference between this and a guitar is that there’s no fret, so you can play it like a regular guitar, but the notes slide a lot easier, creating that more draw-out ‘Arabic’ sound to the instrument,” he explains. "In some ways it’s like a sitar, because a lot of Arabic music is monophonic. It’s droney. There aren’t a lot of chord changes in Arabic music. The oud is a primary instrument. This is the equivalent of the piano in Arabic music. Even a lot of the orchestral music, or any music Arabic music that uses Arabic scales, will be written on the oud.” Singers and ouds have pushed Sam Shalabi not only into previously uncharted sonic territory, but also into a more intimate relationship with his past. Of course, he’s not about to stick around for long. "All of the songs on this album, I’m not going to do again,” he says. "We launched the album a week ago, and I wrote a new 45-minute piece for that.” Wherever he goes next, chances are he won’t have been there before.