Sam Shalabi, arguably the hardest working person to emerge from Montreal's vibrant music scene, has come up with an album he calls 'protest music about arabophobia in a post 9-11 world.' PHILIP CHEAH explains what it all means.




"Why don't you suck my big fat Semitic cock? Why don't you at least pretend to care about the situation in the Middle East?" challenges Sam Shalabi of the Shalabi Effect on their third album, Osama (Alien 8 Recordings).

An offshoot of the Godspeed-You-Black-Emperor-Montreal-experimental-rock community (which includes A Silver Mt Zion and Set Fire To Flames), the band was noted for its psychedelic, avant-garde treatment of Middle-eastern and Indian rhythms on their first two albums — the eponymously-titled The Shalabi Effect and The Trial Of St. Orange.

Osama is a marked departure. As oud player and electronics manipulator Sam Shalabi notes: "This album was started, in earnest, as 'Protest music' about arabophobia in a 'Post 9-11 World'. I wanted it to be autobiographical (my given name is Osama) and somewhat clear in its intended dissent."

"Somewhat clear" is the operative description here. Osama is simply a melange of influences never heard before in the band's music. And it takes some getting used to. The 17-minute opening track, The Wherewithall, is a cut-and-paste operation of hard progressive rock which segues into a Velvet-Underground-styled-spoken-word-dream dialogue about an Arab who can play better guitar than a rich Jew. You can take it as an obscure rant about rock 'n' roll and the meeting of cultures.

On Mid-East Tour Diary (2002) where the "semitic cock" quote comes from, Shalabi does a straight-faced account of being terrified during a tour in that region where suicide bombs seem to follow the band's itinerary. The hysteria increases and the tour collapses. "So what did I learn?" Shalabi asks himself, "I learned — surprise, surprise — that we have to learn to love the Arab and the Jew…We should destroy power with our power, with a song, with a poem, with a koan…" The monologue takes place against a repetitive violin-led, free jazz riff and then segues into a crunching scream of anguish that lasts another four minutes.

This is contrasted against Shitmobile, U.S.A. which has an absurd conversation taking place. Here's a sample dialogue:

"What's your problem anyway?"
"Pass the saffron. Growl lower."

And later:

"Time to read some Shakespeare."
"Yeah, some home truths. Count me in… All you can do is hang on."

The conversation disintegrates into an S&M session, with sounds of whipping and moaning and crying laughter. The background music has an Egyptian oud and electric guitar duelling with a trumpet blowing over it.

In between, there's Der El-Bahri From The Air, which has a spaced-out Syd Barrett-styled vocal filled with sensual guitar solos while the centrepiece is the 17-minute blow-out on Guantanamo Bay.

It begins with a — surprise, surprise — pop song!! The refrain is "well, I'll see you on the other side," an ironic refrain as the title refers to the controversial US camp for suspected terrorists, where human rights abuses have been charged. Then it flows into a free jazz jam, gentle, melodic and discordant all at the same time, with a soundtrack of marines marching in the background.

So what did I learn from all this, I ask myself. That the album was released in March but I spent months in record stores all over the world from Spain to Austria, which knew about it but didn't stock it. That ultimately, Osama provides absurdist enjoyment, because what's happening today is pretty absurd by any standard anyway.

CLICK HERE: To order Sam Shalabi's Osama.





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