Land of Kush – The Big Mango
Following several visits to the city over the years, Osama (Sam) Shalabi moved to Cairo in 2011, arriving at an apartment one block from Tahrir Square, in the midst of Egypt's 'Arab Spring'. Shalabi describes The Big Mango, his new and phenomenal work for his Land Of Kush big-band, as "a love letter to Cairo" framed by "the beautiful, surreal madness of the city… as joyous, horrific, historical events were unfolding". The music was also inspired by time spent in Dakar – a break from the unrelenting intensity of Cairo – where in Senegal's music scene Sam experienced parallels to another of his important aesthetic and political touchstones, Brazilian Tropicalia. The sense of a "positivity, complexity and radicalism in art that was also playful and joyous and wasn't necessarily part of a 'revolution' but seemed to be a form of innate radicalism" – in tandem with the relative openness of Dakar's Islamic society, where the role and presence of women in public and private life, and the relaxed physicality and sensuality of the culture in general – offered a powerful counterpoint and feeling of promise for Egypt's own future. The Big Mango is one of the many nicknames for Cairo, but also evokes the sweetness, succour and sensuality of southern hemispheric music more generally, in its aforementioned relation to broader socio-political movements.
Montréal remains Shalabi's home base in many respects, and the place to which he briefly returned towards the end of 2012 to reconvene the large troupe of players that have helped him realize his large-scale orchestral works under the Land Of Kush moniker. Working through The Big Mango score with these local musicians culminated in two ecstatic live performances and a recording session at Montréal's Hotel2Tango studio. This third album by Land Of Kush is arguably the group's most focused and effortlessly rewarding.
The Big Mango kicks off in typically bizarre and uncategorizably Kush fashion, with a slowly brewing stew of free-improvised instrumentation, electronics, wordless vocalizations and oblique sexuality/sensuality through the opening two tracks, "Faint Praise" and "Second Skin". These opening six minutes are an inimitable destabilizing strategy of Shalabi's – his lysergic take on an orchestra 'warming up' – that serves to introduce most of the instrumental voices and the montage of genres that will form the rest of the work, while also invoking the album's deeper conceptual preoccupations: gender, sexuality and the status of women as a culture unleashes seismic/revolutionary energies with the real possibility of attendant shifts in civil society and political structure.
For Shalabi, gender and Arab culture has been a central theme, one he took up explicitly on the previous Kush album Monogamy (2011), and which unquestionably drives The Big Mango, where once again a series of female vocalists drawn from Montréal's indie rock community anchor the work and convey what in most of the North African Arab world remains an utterly radical spirit of gender equality, expression and liberation.
The natural and implicit libidinal energy of rock and roll long since taken for granted in the West is re-situated in The Big Mango, where the album's centrepiece songs – "The Pit", "Mobil Nil", Drift Beguine" and the album's closing title track – are each highlighted by superlative, propulsive female vocal performances (and individually-authored lyrics) by Ariel Engle, Katie Moore, Elizabeth Anka Vajagic and Molly Sweeney respectively. Underpinning each of these singers is some of Shalabi's most melodically and rhythmically satisfying writing, conjuring a post-modern psychedelia that is truly sui generis. The Kush band delivers the grooves and soloists unleash excursions more fluidly than ever; for many of these players, it's the third time around embracing Sam's music, getting inside the score, and following his conduction. In combination with the peaking intensity and electricity of Shalabi's compositional vision, The Big Mango coheres, sparkles and soars: a distillation of the sonic trajectory Land Of Kush has been charting for the past five years.
Thanks for listening.
1. Faint Praise
2. Second Skin
3. The Pit (Part 1)
4. The Pit (Part 2)
5. Sharm El Bango
6. Mobil Nil
7. St Stefano
8. Drift Beguine
9. The Big Mango
Running time: 00:47:03
LP is pressed on 180 gram virgin vinyl at Optimal (Germany) and comes in a heavyweight jacket with black poly-lined audiophile dust sleeve, credit insert, pull-out art poster and download code for 320 kbps MP3 copy of the album.
CD comes in a custom gatefold jacket printed on thick 24pt. paperboard with a printed CD dust sleeve.
Alexandre St-Onge: computer + voice
Anthony Seck: setar
Dave Gossage: flutes
Devin Waldman: alto saxophone
Dina Cindric: piano
Elizabeth Lima: clarinet, vocals
Jason Sharp: baritone saxophone
Jonah Fortune: acoustic bass
Josh Zubot: violin
Gavin John Sheehan: electric guitar
Gen Heistek: viola
Michel Bonneau: balafon, hand drums
Pat Conan: drums
Pierre-Guy Blanchard: riqq, darbuka, hand drums
Rebecca Foon: cello
Will Eizlini: trumpet, tablas, sampler
Lead vocals and lyrics:
Ariel Engle: "The Pit"
Katie Moore: "Mobil Nil"
Elizabeth Anka Vajagic: "Drift Beguine"
Molly Sweeney: "The Big Mango"
Recorded and mixed by Radwan Ghazi Moumneh at The Hotel2Tango in Montreal
Mastered by Harris Newman at Greymarket.
Album artwork by Nazik Dakkach.