Originally published by Cult Mtl. Here in extended edit.
Interview with Stefan Christoff and Sam Shalabi
Rodina is the second installment of Howl! Arts collectives St Laurent Piano project. A series of piano and oud duets between Stefan Christoff and Sam Shalabi released on 12″ vinyl. Though the title refers to a Slavic concept of motherland, it’s not about a particular territory but about the broader concept of what makes a homeland.
Back in 2010 prolific Montreal musician Sam Shalabi, known for his psychedelic ensembles Shalabi Effect and Land of Kush as well as his solo work (including the reflection on post-911 islamophobia Osama) decided to move to Cairo. While he was planning this move, the revolution happened. Recorded last fall during one of Shalabi’s visits to Montreal, Rodina draws on free form jazz and the makam tradition of Arabic music. Both traditions are relatively open, allowing a natural and intuitive dialogue to emerge between the players.
The open format music stems from open ended political discussions between Christoff and Shalabi over the years.
Recently the three of us sat down at Euro Café on St. Laurent to discuss the new record, living transnationally, and the endless search for a homeland. A very long, detailed conversation ensued, and carried on into the street.
Joseph: Rodina is rooted in this idea of an endless search for a homeland. How did this come to be important to you both, and how does it relate to the music you play together?
Stefan Christoff: There’s a recognition that that search for home is endless in North America. There’s no obvious conclusion and I think that has something to do with this land as a colonized land. And the realities we live in today as cultures that are scattered globally, but I think the underlying idea if that sort of clash between ‘homelands’ that were and can never really feel at home. And one of the reasons I think is because of the original injustice of the displacement of the first people has not been resolved, right, so I think that idea of calling this project, and the melancholy of it, is feeling and breathing and living that, and recognizing the other influences of the cultures from which we came.
Sam: That melancholia that Stefan is talking about is buried in a lot of people. Its not that you have to be nationalistic or proud of your borders or something but that sense of belonging somewhere requires a certain amount of privilege, you’re able to create that sense of rootless cosmopolitanism, but people who can’t never really feel at home anywhere. We know what we do is not traditional music but the appreciate of it is creating another kind of imaginary homeland I guess, for people who don’t feel at home, which is most people. We’re going off from the two traditions of the instruments that we’re playing. I don’t do what we do with anybody else, I’m using the instrument but trying to push it a little bit out of its comfort zone. To try to willfully do something that is sort of experimental for the sake of being experimental, that would be more on the side of Western music, in a funny way.
The immateriality of music makes for a great metaphor for the political imaginary. How can we reflect upon the recent events in Egypt in this light?
Sam: The idea of the coup is insignificant. The army in Egypt has had power in Egypt for 60 years, they own 40% of the economy, they have a lot of industries, they don’t need executive power, they are the power in Egypt. I think the argument about respecting democracy is a fucking joke anyway, wherever you look there’s no democracy, so that part of it- people demanding that the Brotherhood leaving power before their mandate was through- I totally respect that. Then you ask, How else should that have happened? I dunno. The military stepped in, they have some special bond with the Egyptian people. [laughs] Everything that happened from that moment afterward I think is now suspicious and really needs to be looked into. I don’t think its hopeless, but it’s a mess.
And what can we learn from these experiences?
Stefan: Montréal is facing a big question- as artists, as a city, the cultural sphere- do we retain an artistic presence that is rooted in life and politics and rooted in having real discussions about life and the world or do we have a more gentrified version of art that strips away arts relationship to the world and look at art as a commodity? It’s going to become more and more urgent. This is just one release, it’s just one release but that questions, arts relationship to the world, and art not being removed from the world.
The commodity form obscures its origins. Art is something whose means of production we can retain control over.
Sam: A lot of these things that happen, like in Egypt, when you compare how art functions, what it does, in a society and a culture, it has a different functions than it does here. Not for everybody you know for a certain segment of the population it has the same function as it does for people here you know, pure entertainment and that’s fine, but when your actual life situation, when the air you breathe is “political,” in Egypt I don’t know anybody who doesn’t talk about politics. It’s a constant thing.
Even before the 25th of January?
Sam: No , I mean because people were scared. There were a lot of snitches, people were afraid of the cops, but that’s no true anymore. One thing, one constant is that fear’s been broken. What I love about Egypt is there you feel that life is a question, it should be thrown up in the air. I don’t even talk about politics with musicians (here) anymore. When I’d lived here for a while people would ask me like why are you interested in this, oh Mr. Artist is interested in politics, but to me this is your life, actually, this is what your life is, you don’t realize that for most of the world this luxury of being able to separate these things you know doesn’t exist for those people, and you know it shouldn’t just because we’re living…
Stefan: …in a colonial dream world.
We’ve been trained to think of politics as what politicians do. So do you feel at home in Egypt?
Sam: More than here, that’s for sure, partially just because I didn’t go there to do something, for the music scene or anything, it’s the city and the culture itself that I’m there for. In Cairo. I just find people… the easiest way to put it is they’re more alert, more willing to cut to the bone.
Maybe if we have some serious food shortages here people will wake up.
Sam: That’s what it is. People look at third world countries and think there’s something backwards about them whereas I find that here in North America there’s something more backwards because the idea of democracy, they still think its represented by the people that are elected and empowered and they don’t see that its in their hands, whereas in Egypt they have no choice, the cleavage between these guys who are in power, no one believes what they say.
These political questions can become so frustrating, but especially after a difficult struggle with little to show for it, you at some point have to ask what do you get out of doing art?
Stefan: In activism there is a very specific feeling or motivation that is rooted in the basis of our humanity, and that’s very difficult to describe with a banner or a press release, but it’s very possible to describe that in music.
That urgent sense that we as people need to join together to articulate another world, a constant process not based in old doctrines or dogmas but that universal feeling that humanity has to arrive at a very different place if we are going to survive.
Sam: To me the thing that I’m not interested in is sort of propaganda, doing “political” music that is either preaching to the converted or telling someone what they should or shouldn’t think, I think that cheapens the power of music.
Just because someone chooses to do something banal – singing about cars, or hot dogs- that’s still political. There’s a reason why that person is choosing to do that but if you take what it can do seriously, you know it actually can affect people in a way that goes beyond this idea of what’s political, casting your vote or carrying a sign on the street, which in a way is a self-defeating idea of what is political anyway.
Evan Parker, the great British saxophone player, said politicians could learn a lot from the way improvising musicians work together. And I think it’s absolutely true, it shows another way or organizing communication, another way of how people might treat each other that’s not based on power relations. Implicit in music is a huge power, the best kind of power because it’s endless, it doesn’t stop anywhere and it’s not yours its available to anyone who wants to do it or hear it.
What’s the relationship to Montreal?
Stefan: We’re here. [laughs]
Home means different things to different people. Stateless peoples, diasporic communities, our grandparents or parents as immigrants. My dad would never have thought of leaving the Bronx where he grew up, and so the fact that my cousins and I are all so scattered is a bit difficult for our parents to understand. There are economic and political causes for that, of course, but nonetheless.
Sam: Some people can choose their homeland and make a choice to create that themselves, their ancestors and their family. There’s a way people can move around more, if they’re able to, in the sense that phrase of Ginsberg’s “rootless cosmopolitans,” you can kind of live that way but you know adding to what Stefan is saying , for some people that’s not possible, and I think…
We’re quite privileged.
Sam: Yea, anyone who ends up, by choice, in a cosmopolitan setting, there’s a certain amount of privilege to that, you know I look at my parents and they certainly don’t feel at home here, but they don’t feel at home in Egypt, and that becomes complicated, why exactly that’s the case. For them it’s not a choice, they’d want to feel at home somewhere, but they don’t. A lot of immigrants feel that way, between too places and often, here, the way things are set up you’re not supposed to feel at home. The global citizen doesn’t matter, the idea of homeland, there are other things that are more pressing, that dynamic you know of making people buy things, making people consumers or whatever, that idea is in people a kind of varied idea, a formalist idea but hen here it’s very easy to see, in North America, the First Nations, aboriginal peoples, I’m sure they don’t feel at ‘home’ either, they’re creating something but the big power that sat on them has dictated their ‘homeland; for them but the reality is it was destroyed long ago.
Stefan: In the actual music one of the things that strikes me is that sense of melancholy. We didn’t set out to highlight a specific emotion. We’d had some discussions, and we just started playing and I think the music reflects the ideas to a degree and I’d say in a musical sense there’s two sort of distinct forms, or traditions that are referenced. Jazz, free form jazz and the makam tradition of Arabic music. It draws on those two musical forms that are open.
Since the piano is 12 tones, it can’t really play makams, right?
Sam: Not all makams are quarter tones, actually. Maybe half a dozen.
Stefan: This was more rooted in scales. I learned these scales through our practices, ones Sam taught me.
Sam: Some of them you knew. I just gave you names for them. It’s not atonal. It’s not completely…
Stefan: It’s less constrained by trying to travel between certain scale changes or anything. When Sam was playing I’d be listening for certain notes that might suggest certain scales, you know?
Sam. Right, I think we’re that that we are trying to mix two things but not neutrally but instinctively the thing that we’re not trying to do is premeditatedly look at a model of how to we put these things together, what are we going to do, because that turns into fusion or something cheese ball, that I don’t do, but I think what we’re doing is using improvisation because it’s that which dictates the form and wherever that goes it goes. But we’re not trying to do it to necessarily push things for the sake for being experimental.
St. It’s very natural.
Sam: We’re going off from the two traditions of the instruments that we’re playing. I don’t do what we do with anybody else, I’m using the instrument but trying to push it a little bit out of its comfort zone, not dramatically for the sake of doing it, trying to make it do something for the sake of doing it, that would be more on the side of Western music, ina funnyw ay, to try to willfully do something that is sort of experimental for the sake of being experimental.
Not knowing the outcome, having to react to that. Did you play around with extended techniques at all?
Sam: No extended technique, not on the oud. I like the sound of the oud. I’ve tried that, you know on the oud, I do that on guitar, there’s enough stuff that you can, you know, there’s enough that you can do, but what we’re doing is the challenge. In a way it’d be easy for us to get together and go pling plonck and play the inside of the piano and me to go rub the wood of the oud or throw some water in the sound hole, that’d be easy but trying to something we’re just putting the feelers out from the instruments themselves. I find them more interesting. What Stefan does is what I like about oud, it’s more about the instrument, letting the attributes and and strengths of the instrument which I in my experience doing atonal stuff on oud it’s really not that interesting actually. What Stefan does using the piano as an acoustic instrument.
Stefan: One thing that keeps coming p in terms of being an musician is playing shows, and people keep saying oh there’s thing show and thing show, but one specific problem I keep running into is there’s possibilities of shows in place without piano, and actually I don’t play keyboards, right, I just actually don’t know how too because so much of the playing is related to the tone of the piano and the rolling acoustics that you can develop on the piano, and very much using the instruments. Also I’m not a trained musician. There’s a bit of a punk aesthetic, approach It doesn’t sound at all “Punk” but in terms of my relationship to the instrument, I don’t have any relationship to any of those ideas, the piano as this or the piano as that my only relationship to the piano is being very bored at a certain period in my life when I was a teenager and sitting down and listening to things and playing around on the piano, and later on when I was doing a lot of really intense activism I’d play piano as a way to just sort of deal with things, I’d just start playing, right. It’s an in process relationship.
Sam: What we do is more tactile. We’re trying to do something that has an acoustic phenomenon about it. Part of the reason I say he approaches piano in a similar way to how a lot of people approach oud, and how I like to approach oud, is sort of bend it backwards and get it to do stuff I can do on guitar or atonal but because the instrument itself has its strengths, a tactile kind of physical somatic thing about it. You’re developing a relationship, it’s playing you too, so there’s a kind of relationship.. navigating that and makams themselves there’s no frets on the instrument so you can get a certain type of expression that doesn’t really have anything to do with the tonal –atonal distinction of western music.
I’ve heard it said it’s a good lens to interpret Jimi through though.
Sam: What Stefan does the relationship is that sort of tactile thing trying to do something that has an acoustic quality but not in any kind of purist sense… trying to animate, get something happning, in terms of those two instruments together, otherwise you can fall into traps, the referentiality of the piano, it’s the western instrument and oud as well in Arabic culture, easy to fall into obvious or cheesy pitfalls, we’re trying to see what we get what we’re feeling in the moment. Not trying to get in the way of the instrument too much, they have their qualities as well,trying to do extended techniques is valid, I love that, but that’s not what we’re trying to do.
Stefan Christoff & Sam Shalabi – родина
Howl! Arts Collective – St. Laurent Piano Project
Melancholic and hopeful, this 12” record remains focused despite its open format, stemming from years of attentively playing together. Both piano and oud are melodic instruments with strong percussive qualities, and both hold esteemed positions in their respective classical musical traditions. On Rodina, Christoff and Shalabi aren’t exactly subverting these traditions so much as diverging from them, improvising around the guiding concept of an imagined homeland, an endless question that plagues most of us living in the colonial nations of North America. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Listen to the opening piece from родина (rodina), a second release from the St. Laurent Piano Project, recorded on a winter morning at Sala Rossa concert hall in Montréal. Released on 12″ vinyl by the Howl! arts collective, this record is an exploration of duets between Sam Shalabi on oud and Stefan Christoff on piano.
Music on this recording is inspired by the endless search for home in North America, a place of lands and people continuing to struggle against the legacy and current reality of colonialism. родина (rodina) is about reflecting on ancestors, dreams of another place and a future of liberation.