Land of Kush: The Big Mango

This uniquely celebratory work is one of the best of the year.

Land of Kush

The Big Mango

Label: Constellation
US Release Date: 2013-10-01
UK Release Date: Import

The wild, anarchic nature of dance, that moment when any semblance of a mind/body duality shatters, is frequently of profound, often disturbed interest to observers. Accounts of ‘first’ contact between European explorers and indigenous peoples almost inevitably contain descriptions of dances and rituals, told in a voice of fear and incredulity. These ‘civilized’ eyes found disgust in the savagery they perceived, and no matter how much they wished it destroyed, how much these conquerors expected their hosts to change, to disappear even, they still identified in the motions the spark of freedom. In her Biography of No Place, Kate Brown describes the wedding ceremonies of chassidim in the pre-war Russian borderland and how their communities danced for days on end in joy, their eyes wild and open to the nature of God.

Why is it, then, that so much of what passes for dance music is in fact so sterile, seeking only the momentary highs of Molly instead of the ecstatic real thing, when the act it is meant to provoke so thoroughly smashes the rational mirror? Maybe that sterility matches the rote quality of its audience, afraid of what will happen when the House beat stops, comforted by the wait for it wait for it rush preceding a drop that always comes. We can rest assured that a song like David Guetta’s “Titanium” (223 million YouTube views and counting) will hit those dramatic highs because it starts that way out of the gate, beginning at 11 and never letting go. It’s all just so fucking boring, right?

But this isn’t a lecture -- it’s a celebration. That is what Land of Kush keeps reminding us. Recorded using local Montreal musicians, The Big Mango is a love letter from composer Osama (Sam) Shalabi to his new home, Cairo, and all of its tumults and contradictions, and the music thrills like few things can. Reveling in free-jazz noise, rock rhythms, and the radical propulsion that Shalabi encountered on trips to Dakar, Senegal, the album weaves the divine spirit unleashed through fury and joy and dance into an utterly fascinating whole.

By no means is this strictly music for movement, however -- at least not of any structured sort. Before really taking off on “The Pit (Part 1 and 2)", we get almost 10 minutes of burgeoning, though composed, chaos, murmured vocals clashing with flute, Jason Sharp’s baritone sax bleating over the top and reminiscent of Colin Stetson’s avant-drone work. This pinging between controlled pandemonium and something beautiful, strident, transcendent, is not accidental. Shalabi is tackling the nature of change and the place of women in Arab culture on Big Mango, and by so clearly blurring the strange and the celebratory, he suggests that even sweeping, radical change need not be a revolution, but perhaps a way of life, movement as vital force in the universe.

And when this thing moves, it moves. "The Big Pit” rides hand percussion and a sax rhythm as guitars ring out, and Ariel Engle’s vocals take us to a higher place. I am reminded of Debo Band, an Ethiopian jazz group based in Boston whose ferocious live show stole CMJ for me last year. There is no sense of a self-conscious attempt to mash ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ styles together because it’s all just music, and Shalabi too able of a composer to stumble, clumsy, into that trap. With its electronic samples and Thelonious Monk piano, “Sharm El Bango” is the sound of a big city in transit, no matter the continent, and “Drift Begune” combines sitar, hand drums, and a dissonant climax in a way that nevertheless feels of a piece with everything around it.

“The Big Mango”, however, is where Shalabi’s vision truly pushes out and we find a fire unlike anything else. Singer-songwriter Molly Sweeney takes lead vocals and guitars burn and strings saw and saxophones feel like chips being taken out of some mammoth wall, piece by mounting piece. Listening prompts visions of celebration, uninhibited movement, growth and turnover and rebirth. Shalabi seems to suggest: nothing is so far away that we can’t see it, and if so, it’s graspable, too. Freedom is a force all by itself, and uninhibited, we can once more dance this world into being, anew.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.