The East / West Spectrum

It can be argued that all music is political, whether it wants to be or not. If родина—the latest project by Sam Shalabi and Stefan Christoff—is political, it’s because the record holds no simple feelings. The listener must navigate unfamiliar sounds to decide how it makes them feel.

The result is complex, emotional and more demanding than what everyday Western music has to offer. And it’s this complexity that drew Christoff to music in the first place.

“Most of my ‘20s I spent my time doing hardcore activism […] for me there was a whole range of emotions that was driving those campaigns,” says Christoff. “There were all kinds of feelings that couldn’t be expressed in a press release or on a banner.”

It’s early afternoon and Shalabi and Christoff are rehearsing in Casa del Popolo’s backroom venue when we speak. The three of us sit onstage and discuss their latest project across the street from Sala Rossa, where the record was tracked.

The album’s title is an old eastern European word for “home,” and features largely improvised pieces recorded live, with Shalabi on the oud and Christoff on piano. It’s an eastern-inspired record pulling from maqam, an Arabic melodic system, with abstracted hints of free jazz.

“The two instruments are kind of the equivalents in oriental and occidental music,” says Shalabi of their sound’s cultural hybrid. While the oud works with eastern quarter tones, by design the piano can’t produce those intervals.

“The piano is the mother, the one that people write on, that everybody plays. It’s the same for the oud in Arabic music.”

Shalabi and Christoff share the same philosophy of studying through oral tradition, learning the oud and piano respectively by listening to others. Their musical discourse, always based on spontaneity, is shaped by their shared interests—which leans heavily on their politics. The two met at a local awareness-raising event for Palestine over a decade ago, shortly after Christoff moved to Montreal.

They have been crossing paths in Montreal’s activist and musical circles ever since.

While they’ve been jamming together for five years, their first release was only last year, Shalabi playing on one track of Christoff’s Duets for Abdelrazik.

This new album was recorded on a cold December morning over a few hours, but the exact date is debateable.

“We were on a lot of drugs, mostly birth control pills,” jokes Shalabi. Over the years his projects have ranged from meditative to nonsensical, often in the same track.

He’s a veteran Montreal player, having put out a number of releases with Alien8 Records, a label that has played home to master of ambience Tim Hecker and now-defunct Montreal mainstays The Unicorns. More recently Shalabi orchestrated the Egyptian-inspired psych ensemble Land of Kush.

Shalabi now lives in Egypt, where his parents grew up. The two recorded родина during his last visit to Montreal.

“The thing about specialization in the West is somehow your emotions and your intellect are two different things […] What does it mean to do something with no emotion in it?” says Shalabi.

“In terms of popular music, to me the emotional content is like someone who hasn’t used their arm in five years; it shrinks and becomes weak.

“It’s validating people’s worst tendencies.”

Originally published by The Link Newspaper.