Interview: Sam Shalabi of Land Of Kush

For Sand Enigma we had 5 days of recording that were long days but we managed to get what we needed done in that time. There was definitely a kind of magic during the process though as we got great takes of the sections quickly.

Sand Enigma, the new album from Land Of Kush is an expansive journey of sound. The album features an expansive cast of musicians, each of whom adds a depth of texture to the Land Of Kush sound. We had a chat with Land Of Kush founder Sam Shalabi to hear all about how Sand Enigma came together and the history of the project as well recent live concerts, forthcoming ones, and musical highlights of the year.

(((o))): Your new album Sand Enigma is out now. How did the creation of the album come about?

Sam Shalabi: As is usual with many Kush pieces, we were asked to play a gig and the timing was right – at the Aga Khan Museum in toronto – and so I wrote a new piece for it because we rarely do the same piece twice and I always see the occasion of a Kush gig after a long break as a chance to do something new, so the impetus for the piece was the ‘commission’ by The Music Gallery in Toronto(specifically David Dacks) to play at The Aga Khan Museum.

(((o))): Was it always your intention for the album to be so sprawling and musically diverse or did it just vibe together when you were creating it?

SS: I just write pieces as I hear them and there’s never an intention of making things any one way, the pieces come as they are and I’m very lucky to have a group of musicians who can beautifully translate the pieces into what they are.

(((o))): Who features on the album and why did you choose them specifically to feature on the album? 

SS: Amir Amiri – santur /vocals, Ivan Bamford – percussion, Pierre Guy Blanchard – percussion, Michel Bonneau – percussion/vocals, Dina Cindric – piano, Patrick Conan – drums, David Gossage – flutes, Jonah Fortune – acoustic bass, Genevieve Heistek – viola /vocals, Adam Kinner – tenor sax, Maya Kuroki – vocals, Elizabeth Lima – clarinet /vocals, Maurice Louca – keyboards/synthesizer, Vicky Mettler – electric and acoustic guitar, Mark Molnar – cello, Katie Moore – vocals, Sarah Page – harp/vocals, Anthony Von Seck – setar and lap steel guitar, Jason Sharp – baritone sax, Nadah El Shazly – vocals, Alexandre St-Onge – electronics/ vocals, Elizabeth Anka Vajagic– vocals, Devin Brahja Waldman – alto sax and Joshua Zubot – violin.

This is basically the stable group, some members have been in the group since the beginning and some are more recent. I choose the musicians based as much on their personality and their musical skills, and so all of them are good friends and musicians who I admire a lot.  

(((o))): With so many musicians featuring on Sand Enigma, was it a challenge assembling such a massive ensemble?

SS: Everyone in the group is an artist and musician in their own right, and so indeed it’s difficult to get us all in the same room.

(((o))): Can you tell us about the recording process for Sand Enigma?  

SS: It was mostly done live off the floor with few overdubs, we tend to have work fast in terms of tracking because our set up time is long in the studio. For Sand Enigma we had 5 days of recording that were long days but we managed to get what we needed done in that time. There was definitely a kind of magic during the process though as we got great takes of the sections quickly. Radwan Ghazi Moumneh and Ky Brooks did an amazing job of recording us. They were focused and patient with us(with 25 people in a studio patience is definitely a virtue which they had)

(((o))): What does the title of the album refer to?

SS: I’d rather leave that up to the listeners imagination.

(((o))): The album follows 2013’s Big Mango, how do you feel that the sound of Land Of Kush has expanded since that album?

SS: We have a few more members and whoever is in the group makes a huge difference. Certainly adding members makes it possible to do other things for this album, two of my closest musical partners from Cairo are on the album and that made a big difference..

(((o))): This is your first album in six years, why was there such a relatively long gap between the two albums?

SS: Mostly because its very difficult for a group of this size to do a lot! Plus I was living in Egypt for a while and we were inactive mostly during that period, also I tend not to write Kush pieces unless there’s some creative and pragmatic need for them(meaning the possibility of performing them).  

(((o))): What has the reaction to Sand Enigma been like so far?

SS: It seems quite positive!

(((o))): How did Land Of Kush come together as a project?

SS: Years ago, I was asked to participate in an Egyptian cultural event and I had the idea of doing a large orchestral piece in the tradition of Oum Kalsoum, Mohamed Abdel Wahab etc. At that point(around 2001) it was an all instrumental group with no singers, we got great feedback over the performance we did but I wasn’t very happy with it because I felt my writing wasn’t very good and I kind of put the group to rest for a while. Then after some years I started working with singers more and realized I wanted to include vocals in the group and this seemed to free me up in terms of my writing for the group and inspire me to reactivate Kush(as did spending time in Egypt).

(((o))): How did the launch of Sand Enigma at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto go and can you tell us about the night?

SS: It went well! Sold out show and very good sound in the space. It was a thrill to play the piece for the first time, we are usually nervous and bit under rehearsed when we play a piece for the first time but that kind of energy adds to the vibe of the music I think. The only drawback that night was that Maurice Louca, who is on the album and a member of the group couldn’t be there.

(((o))): Are there any plans for any live dates in support of the new album?

SS: We are playing Roskilde Festival in Copenhagen in July of 2020 and may have other dates in Europe in the fall of 2020.

(((o))): What have been the highlights of Land Of Kush so far?  

SS: I feel every time we play or record together it’s a highlight in a way. It’s not a regular occurrence for any of us and so it’s always special.

(((o))): What have been the best albums that you have listened to this year?

SS: I mostly listen to old music. But I do listen to a lot of stuff. In terms of new music; Baba Yaga by Tamayuge is great as is A Phyric Existence by Esoteric. Those two stood out as great new music. The reissue of Not Available by The Residents, Trilogy by Frank Sinatra, New York Tendaberry by Laura Nyro, The Complete Jack Johnson by Miles Davis, and Automatic Writing by Robert Ashley were things I listened to a lot.

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