Renowned Montréal/Cairo-based composer Sam Shalabi returns with his exhilarating and utterly genre-bending big band Land Of Kush. The trenchantly-titled Sand Enigma is the orchestra’s long awaited fourth album – its first in six years, following 2013’s The Big Mango, Shalabi’s critically-acclaimed love letter to Cairo, written and recorded during the Arab Spring. While the intervening years have obviously been devastating and disenchanting in so many ways, Sand Enigma bristles with defiant exuberance, restless creative energy, and electrifying cross-cultural expression. The album is a wildly diverse and hugely compelling tour de force of modern composition that pulses with emotion and experimentation, blending avant-garde, psychedelic, Middle Eastern, out-jazz, electronic and improv/free music tropes to stunning effect. Sand Enigma is peak Land Of Kush: the band’s most accomplished, acute and accessible album to date (though don’t expect ‘easy listening’ from this boundary-pushing hydra-headed entity).

Premiered at a rapturously-received concert in spring 2018 at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Shalabi entered Montréal’s Hotel2Tango studio later that year to record Sand Enigma with producer/engineer Radwan Ghazi Moumneh (Jerusalem In My Heart, Matana Roberts, Suuns, Big Brave, Sarah Davachi) and a cast of over twenty of Montréal’s finest out-music players, many of them veterans of Kush and of Shalabi’s various other projects. This 75-minute work (spread across two slabs of vinyl in the deluxe 2x180gLP edition) brilliantly captures a band on fire, flowing through composed set-pieces, improvisational turns, harmolodic gestural and textural interplay, bursts of fervent groove, and fearless, feral experimentation. As Alan Bishop (Sun City Girls/Sublime Frequencies) raves: “Sam Shalabi has raised the bar for modern psychedelic music with the Land Of Kush orchestra, weaving a seamless montage of styles in a transcendent way that is rarely, if ever, achieved.”

As with previous works, the music on Sand Enigma also shifts between instrumentals and vocal-led pieces, with various singers contributing their own lyrics and taking the lead on different songs – including long-standing Kush members Elizabeth Anka Vajagic, Katie Moore and Elizabeth Lima (also a virtuosic extended technique clarinetist), and the newly drafted Tokyo-to-Montréal émigré Maya Kuroki. And while the bounty of heavy-hitting instrumental players are too numerous to call out here, Sand Enigma notably features two new international collaborators, and leading lights of Cairo’s burgeoning avant-electronic scene: Nadah El Shazly (vocals) and Maurice Louca (keys/synths). Among other accolades, both were recently featured as avatars of the Egyptian ‘new wave’ in a cover story in The Wire (along with Dwarfs Of East Agouza, the epiphanic trio of which Shalabi is a member) and both are perfect fits for Shalabi’s compositional sensibility and the idiosyncratic performative spaces he seeks to open up in his big band works. Shazly takes the vocal lead on three songs, including the simmeringly strange slow-burn of the superb album opener “Aha”, and the more traditionally-rooted (though suitably tweaked) maqam-based groove of “Trema” – both highlights on an album that truly bursts forth with them, like relentless fireworks set off from several corners of the world, converging over a Montréal twilight sky, inscribing a celebratory celestial score that innately resists every facile, orthodox or prevailing idea of ‘fusion’ music. Thanks for listening.

Sam Shalabi – composition; arrangement/lyrics on “Sand Enigma”

Amir Amiri – santur/vocals
Ivan Bamford – percussion
Pierre-Guy Blanchard – percussion
Michel Bonneau – percussion/vocals
Dina Cindric – piano
Patrick Conan – drums
Jonah Fortune – acoustic bass
David Gossage – flutes
Geneviève Heistek – viola/vocals
Adam Kinner – tenor saxophone
Maya Kuroki – vocals/lyrics on “Safe Space”
Elizabeth Lima – clarinet /vocals
Maurice Louca – keyboards/synthesizer
Vicky Mettler – electric and acoustic guitar
Mark Molnar – cello
Katie Moore – vocals/lyrics on “Recuerdo”
Sarah Pagé – harp/vocals
Anthony Von Seck – setar and lap steel guitar
Jason Sharp – baritone saxophone
Nadah El Shazly – vocals/lyrics on “Aha” + “Trema” + “Dol”
Alexandre St-Onge – electronics/vocals
Elizabeth Anka Vajagic – vocals/lyrics on “Bone Mass”
Devin Brahja Waldman – alto saxophone
Joshua Zubot – violin

Recorded and mixed at Hotel2Tango in Montréal, Canada by Radwan Ghazi Moumneh
Assistant engineering by Ky Brooks
Nadah El Shazly recorded in Cairo, Egypt by Adham Zidan
Mastered at Grey Market Mastering in Montréal, Canada by Harris Newman
Cover images by Hicham Chadly and Frédéric Oberland.

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