Sam Shalabi

Music for Arabs

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AllMusic Review by

Sam Shalabi is nothing if not prolific. His numerous recordings place him in a category of his own. The completely solo Music for Arabs is a carefully assembled musical sound collage that reflects post-revolution urban Egypt (Cairo, more specifically, where he lives). Shalabi portrays his impressions across six tracks on which he plays all the instruments, from drums and Arabic percussion instruments to daf, mazhar, oud, rabat, salamiyyah, zummara, harmoniums, and keyboards, as well as guitars, samplers, and drum machines. Also playing a large role are overheard street and marketplace conversations repurposed through tape manipulation. While the press release describes this as something akin Brian Eno's Music for Airports for taxi drivers, there isn't anything remotely ambient about this album. Its "ambience," if one can call it that, is chaotic, yet reflects an inner order. The opening "Music for the Egyptians" is a long work that weaves together a fluid, sometimes jarring collection of musics, both traditional and modern, while spoken conversations and sonic textures provide a glimpse of what transpires in the moment as one passes through a busy Cairo street: the echoes of the revolution and the tension of what comes next are ever present in their portrayal of workaday life. Western ears not acquainted with Arabic may be shut out of the conversational snippets, but the music provides clues as to what they might contain -- and how different the everyday is in Cairo from say, New York or London. Arab classical, folk, and modern vanguard traditions swirl together in "Revolution," where reverb, oud, and warped, sung, and spoken voices resemble everything from Middle Eastern classical music to children speaking to a muezzin's call to prayer; all these collide in a strangely ordered yet intricate kind of harmonious whole. "The Enemy of My Enemy" is foreboding and brooding, yet hilarious in its mad weave of cultural traditions and modern Western influences, using distorted guitars and basslines alongside traditional instruments and melodies. Closing bookend "Music for the Egyptians, Pt. 2" is a long, beautiful oud solo; the only accompaniment is a droning, high-pitched keyboard in the backdrop that whispers the set to a finish. For all of its deliberate zaniness, good-natured humor, and subversive cultural and musical juxtapositions, Music for Arabs is a serious work that is a love song to Egypt.

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