Land of Kush: The Big Mango
Constellation Records

The sound produced by Osama (Sam) Shalabi's twenty-piece Land of Kush outfit is, if not sui generis, certainly unlike much of what you'll hear in 2013—or any other year for that matter. Its psychedelic fusion of rock, jazz, folk, African, Middle Eastern, and Indian musics comes naturally to Shalabi, who moved to Cairo in 2011 (in the midst of Egypt's ‘Arab Spring') and fashioned The Big Mango (a nickname for Cairo) as a love letter to a city he describes as beautiful, surreal, and mad. But while there's an Eastern dimension to the music, there's also a core Western side, too, as evidenced by the fact that Shalabi returned to his Montreal home base near the end of 2012 to record the album at Montreal's renowned Hotel2Tango studio with able support from well-known musicians such as Rebecca Foon (cello), Josh Zubot (violin), and Alexandre St-Onge (computer, voice) and five female vocalists drawn from the Montreal indie-rock community. Credited with composition and direction, Shalabi's joined by a large-scale ensemble that includes strings, horns, and woodwinds players, multiple percussionists, an acoustic bassist, electric guitarist, pianist, and vocalists.

Land Of Kush's panoramic, genre-challenging sound is on full display from the outset: listen closely to the opening seconds of “Faint Praise” and you'll hear orgasmic moans behind the crackling fire, a provocative album intro the group extends into the loose flow of mallet patterns and flutes that follows. “Second Skin” substitutes the opener's shambolic sprawl with the quieter meander of Dina Cindric's explorative piano and—shades of Colin Stetson—fluttering saxophone playing backed by a warbly drone. The woodwinds focus carries on into “The Pit” when the saxes and clarinet clear a path for a rambunctious ensemble groove and Ariel Engle's mesmeric vocal melodies. A raucous affair crowned by a wild sax solo and string flourishes, the two-part track twists and turns as it makes its way through multiple episodes. Instrumentally speaking, the group's heady stylistic swirl is captured clearly during “Sharm El Bango” when exotic percussion and electronic whirrings appear alongside jagged guitar stabs and flute and violin soloing.

Repeated listens indicate, however, that, while the instrumentals aren't inconsequential, it's the vocal settings that constitute the album's center, with “Mobil Nil” and the title track significantly elevated by the participation of Katie Moore and Molly Sweeney, respectively. Particularly ear-catching is “Drift Beguine,” whose hypnotic impact is due in part to the bold vocal performance Elizabeth Anka Vajagic brings to the track's infectious rhythms and ululating Arabic melodies. Needless to say, the prominent role played by the vocalists on the album implicitly champions the idea of gender equality and expression—freedoms easily taken for granted when they're accepted as givens, even if they're not so readily available in every part of the world.

November 2013