Sam Shalabi: The Matrix Imploded

This was originally published in the July 2003 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“I am come to tell you that I am Osama, risen from the dead like a phoenix,” says a matter of fact voice on Montreal-based psychedelic/improv musician Sam Shalabi’s extraordinary new release, Osama. The title word summons up the ghost of the hidden or deceased Al Qaeda leader in act of apparent provocation, but it also turns out to be Shalabi’s first name. Born in Libya, of Egyptian parents who emigrated to Canada’s remote Prince Edward Island when he was 5, Shalabi has found himself treated post 0911 as a suspected terrorist merely because of his name and nationality. Osama arrives as a potent musical response to rampant Arabophobia in the West, but also as a very personal, ambivalent and honest description of turbulent times.
Like that other remarkable response to 0911 and its aftermath, David Rees’ comic strip Get Your War On (, Osama achieves its effect not through dogma or slogan, but by describing what it actually feels like to be living in the West right now. While Get Your War On’s characters are depicted using a tiny repertoire of images of businessmen and women taken from corporate clip art, used over and over so that they appear literally trapped at their desks and their computers, while they discuss their fears and responses to the latest moves in the War on Terror, the cast of Osama’s voices emerge from a montage of musical styles, from balls to the wall guitar heroics, to queasy avant-classical strings, to repetitive driving electronic music and Shalabi’s own self-taught oud explorations. Through all of this are interwoven a variety of human voices, from the sound of someone crying, to a series of monologues and dialogues and songs, to what sounds like whole populations fleeing in panic. The guitars at times seem to be instruments of torture, the embodiment of American military-technological supremacy, while at other times, they express the wordless rage and sorrow of impotent populations shoved around by vast global forces.
Shalabi started work on Osama about a year and a half ago. “I wanted to do something literal and autobiographical, specific to what was going on at that time. But the whole process of doing something “political”, even about what was going on in my life with my background, began to bring up a lot of questions about why was I doing it, what effect did I think it would have and who was I doing it for. So then I stopped because I started to think that the idea of doing protest music about something so huge was self-deceptive and opportunistic. And when I started it again, all those feelings were included in the process of making it, in producing a sketch of what I felt was going on, something that was a bunch of voices, a survey of different feelings, impressions and perceptions of the situation. The whole thing started to get darker, more absurd – there was an element of futility to it. It seemed impossible to do something that was fairly literal, that would say anything that would have any value.”
Osama has gotten some hilariously savage reviews in the alternative press (sample: Stylus magazine says “Osama is not avant; it’s fucking garbage”!). It’s a genuinely disturbing record, precisely because it refuses to be situated in one category or another, whether crudely anti or pro war, experimental or pop. Shalabi speaks of his admiration for mid-1960s Frank Zappa productions like We’re Only In It for the Money, but the disk also recalls the tape splicing delights of The Faust Tapes, and the sheer rage of Caetano Veloso’s1972 “comeback” record Araça Azul, which also gleefully mixes concrete sounds and ethnic recordings with metal guitars and delicate psychedelic pop in an iconoclastic denunciation of conformity during the years of the Brazilian dictatorship. A veteran of the Montreal scene, Shalabi currently plays in 11 ensembles including the ethno-psychedelic improv unit The Shalabi Effect, whose excellent Alien8 CD The Trial of Saint Orange mixes fx laden oud and tabla with guitar and electronics. For Osama, Shalabi brought together a cast of thirty plus musicians from Montreal’s ever fertile avant-rock underground, including Efrim Menuck and Sophie Trudeau from Godspeed!, and Jessica Moss from A Silver Mount Zion.
Like Zappa, and other great pop tricksters, Shalabi plays with our desire for truth and confession on Osama. On “Mid East Tour Diary (2002)”, a musician reads from his tour diary, describing his travels from Casablanca, to Cairo, to Nablus, where he plays a gig after a suicide bomber has struck, ending in Jerusalem, where he has a nervous breakdown and wanders the street in a paranoid daze, before deciding he has to cancel the rest of the tour. The pathos of the story is strong, yet Shalabi reveals that the narrative, like others on the disk, is “a total fabrication. The intention behind that was to do something like a typical musician, fairly articulate, naïve yet politically aware, going on a tour to the middle east, and what his impressions and solutions were to the situation he was in. It’s ridiculous because his solution is to withdraw into himself, and that constitutes solving the mid east crisis! He just implodes on himself.” And so it goes with the other tracks. It’s a hall of mirrors. But in this moment of crude simplifications, three color warning systems and Orwellian doublespeak, Shalabi’s hall of mirrors turns out to be the one place where we can actually see ourselves.
On Osama, and 2002’s On Hashish, Shalabi pays homage to the work of German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, whose recently translated Arcades Project is a thousand page montage of quotes and theories about nineteenth century Paris that reveals the total fabric of a culture through a vast matrix of perspectives. “One great thing about Walter Benjamin is that he looked at his time and said that all the levels of the culture are intertwined – there’s no outside. Even if you think you’re outside of some of the preconceptions and prejudices of your time, if you’re positioning yourself against them, that doesn’t mean anything. You’re still in that culture and time, and part of the problem with the underground scene is that a lot of people don’t realize that they’re part of the infrastructure of commodification and capitalism. There’s a place in the status quo for dissent, and it’s easily recuperated. It’s another option or choice which people can go towards to feel good about themselves. The thing to look at is the actual medium and ask: does it actually do anything? Are you actually doing anything? And if that’s a question that’s too silly to ask – well, that’s where my sense of futility comes from. Is that all we have: to be able to say these things and comment from a position that’s fairly comfortable, where there’s really not much at stake?”
Osama is out now on Alien8.