(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Recording review - Sam Shalabi, Music for Arabs (2014)

Difficult, disorganized, dippy, and defiant

Can a 50-year-old man write anything relevant about Miley Cyrus’ musical and cultural significance? Well, if he has a teenage daughter, he might have enough of a clue to get his bearings. But otherwise he’s stuck with an outsider’s perspective. Sam Shalabi’s new album poses its own related challenge, throwing down a gauntlet for the uninitiated. Although the title, Music for Arabs, might appear to indicate his target audience, that’s just a feint. While Shalabi draws heavily on his Egyptian musical roots, the chaotic experimental approach is actually geared towards fans of “difficult-listening music.” The opening track, “Music for the Egyptians”, begins with a 23 second smoke screen of oddly accented rock ’n’ roll drums before slipping off the rails. The instrumentation, rhythm, and scale runs provide a whiff of Arabic aesthetic, but the breakneck tempo crushes it all together into a cacophony of percussion and frantic notes. It’s more reminiscent of poking sticks into bicycle spokes than music. To be charitable, it could be seen as a kind of commentary on the fast pace of Egyptian urban life, but that’s little comfort. The music eventually becomes a backdrop for a rambling Arabic conversation. I’m not convinced that understanding the language would have made this more interesting. About five and a half minutes in, the speaking stops and the piece turns into an Edgard Varèse style “organized sound” composition. The musical timbres and beats are irregular, but at least I have the rubric to appreciate this a bit more as Shalabi creates a suspenseful, cinematic feel. At 8:50, the piece transitions again, setting up a droning undertone of keyboard wash and wandering synthesized bagpipe melodies before dissolving away.

If “Music for the Egyptians” is quite off-putting, it still offers hints of an attractive musical realm. The second track, “Luxor Dancer”, is a deliberately obtuse artistic statement rather than a serious musical offering. Shalabi gives us 30-odd seconds of bicycle spokes again and then falls into a deconstructed disco parody. Imagine Mr. Hankey from “South Park” belting out, “I want to dance/ I’ve been to France,” in his strained falsetto and you get the idea. By the time a weird southern character drops in to drawl about dancing and his dog, Jenny, it’s impossible to take Shalabi very seriously.

Interestingly enough, though, if the listener can make it past these two formidable hurdles, Music for Arabs grudgingly delivers on the initial expectations. The music becomes less confrontational, tempering the strangeness with more traditional Arabic sounds. The fusion of influences leads to some more intriguing work. “The Wherewithal” starts with a meditative oud riff over a steady beat. Light flashes of distortion hover at the edges, but the mood remains thoughtful as the oud meanders along. As the tremolo picking builds intensity, the fuzzy ambiance comes to dominate and the song evolves into a chaotic Velvet Underground tribute, echoing some of Lou Reed’s guitar work on “European Son”. Shalabi gives himself over to the psychedelic jam approach that he’s favored in his other band, The Shalabi Effect, and it’s very engaging.

The album wraps up with “Music for the Egyptians, Pt. 2”, which counterbalances the opening track. It’s packed with restless melody, tracing a path and then reversing direction only to retrace again. If the first tune gave a sense of modern Egypt, this song makes a strong case for the power of tradition. In an interview with fellow musician Alan Bishop on Forced Exposure, Shalabi described Music for Arabs as “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.” “Music for the Egyptians Part 2” serves as his peace offering to them and to the rest of us for persevering through the first two tracks.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

No comments:

Post a Comment