Osama “Sam” Shalabi’s musical background, a hodgepodge of noisy punk rock, traditional Arabic instrumentals and formal jazz training, is as eclectic as one might expect from an Egyptian-Canadian Montreal dweller. Shalabi, who has thrilled underground audiences for years with his unique brand of experimental instrumental music under the Shalabi Effect moniker, will be undertaking a different type of project entirely to help kick off the University’s semester highlighting Middle Eastern cultures. Tomorrow night at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, Shalabi will be performing “The Osama Project,” a combination of prerecorded, electronically manipulated symphonic music and a nonlinear narrative depicting an invented Jewish/Arab relationship. Over the recording, Shalabi will play the oud, a Middle Eastern descendent of the lute.
“My dad is a huge lover of Arabic music. Growing up he had literally thousands of albums in our basement and he would blast this stuff all the time,” said Shalabi. “I wasn’t really into it as a kid, but later as a birthday present he gave me an oud after I’d been playing guitar for a while.” Shalabi’s affection for Arabic music comes as no surprise for those familiar with his work through the Shalabi Effect. He and his group of rotating musicians have produced largely improvised, minimalist post-rock since 2000. In 2002, The Trial of St. Orange established Shalabi as an avant-garde composer and performer, mixing swampy guitar textures with vague Middle Eastern modes, leading the thrilling climaxes. Last year’s Pink Abyss saw Shalabi and his cohorts shift to more structured compositions, albeit still well within the realm of underground rock.
“The Osama Project,” which, it should be noted, has no relation to Shalabi’s Osama album, is a different beast entirely. Described by Shalabi as “fake Egyptian classical music,” the project takes advantage of the musician’s lesser-known talents. “When I started playing music I was already writing prose and stories which I stopped doing eight or nine years ago. This is the third or fourth time that I’ve done something using a lot of characters or using different voices like this,” said Shalabi, referring prior narrative-driven, live performances.
And while the prerecorded material consists mostly of familiar symphonic instruments, Shalabi’s background — both as a purveyor of Arabic music and as an avant-garde musician — comes into play. The canoon, comparable to a hammer dulcimer, the darbuka, a percussion instrument and strings and violins, which he considers traditional Arabic instruments, all make appearances, though Shalabi admitted to “screwing around” quite a bit. “A lot of this has been processed. There’s darbuka, but you won’t hear it. You won’t go ‘Oh, that’s a darbuka.’ ”
Shalabi, however, isn’t worried that this music will fly over the heads of his indie rock fan base. “You could play a toy piano and that might be lost on someone, too,” he said. “I don’t really care if people are educated that I’m using ethnic instruments (as long as) it’s interesting or it works as music.”
Shalabi is also not worried about carrying the flag for any sort of ethnic music. “I think with a lot of Arabic music, the stuff that’s really interesting is really raunchy and very Arabic, but I think for a lot of Western audiences, the presupposition by people who are presenting this music is that somehow they have to sanitize it and make it palatable in some mysterious way so that a Western audience can digest it,” he said. “It’s the worst of both worlds because you end up getting this gross version of whatever indigenous music it is, and somehow you get the worst version of Western music. It has more to do with politics and economics than music.”
Instead, Shalabi has chosen to integrate his many musical interests into a vibrant, exciting and inarguably modern sound. “It’s like (early 20th century delta blues singer) Charley Patton. I love Patton, but I would never do anything like that. I’d look like an idiot. I don’t know how to do it, and it’s been done. You get the inspiration from that stuff.” “The Osama Project” will incorporate many of Shalabi’s diverse inspirations. And given his history of unique, forward-thinking compositions, Shalabi is far more likely to transcend past icons than copy them.