Land of Kush - The Big Mango
Montreal improv musicians' portrait of Cairo is a cultural patchwork
Sam Shalabi’s third album with Land of Kush is a portrait of Cairo (the titular large succulent fruit in question), specifically ‘the beautiful, surreal madness of the city… as joyous, horrific, historical events were unfolding’. His canvas is an assembled big band of Montreal musicians, who manifest aspects of spiritual jazz, Arabian modes, rock and tropicália.
It’s an oddly paced record, the first ten minutes consisting of two very different atmospheric pieces that echo Shalabi’s conflicting perspectives. ‘Faint Praise’ is optimistic and tranquil, a shuffling, heat-haze of gently burbling jazz, while ‘Second Skin’s elegiac solo piano gives way to a looming organ drone and churning, desperate baritone sax.
Things kick in with the two-part cycle ‘The Pit’ – warm and approachable, if not exactly incendiary psychedelic rock – led by saz-style guitar and the honey-drenched vocals of Ariel Engle. ‘Sharm el Bango’ and ‘St Stefano’ both nod to vintage cosmic / spiritual jazz: the former, a somewhat muted tangle of fluttering flutes and effervescing synths; the latter consists of a heavy bass groove and fruity horns that seem destined for a joyous but predictable charivari, but which instead neatly elide into sombre bowed double bass.
In the midst of all this, ‘Mobil Nil’ is an awkward indie-rock anomaly, its faintly climactic Godspeed-lite plod of strings and war drums preceded by a stifling blend of mannered English folk-rock and 1970s MOR. But the final two tracks form a juicy climax. ‘Drift Beguine’ is a sensual, almost gothic Mid-East stomp given beautiful, yearning, dramatic voice by Elizabeth Anka Vajagic, while the title track brings a delirious combination of fuzzy motorik guitars, urgent Arabesque rhythms and stately vocals.
Like the city it portrays, The Big Mango is a sprawling cultural patchwork. Yet at times it feels cautious and restrained, threatening ecstasies only to offer laments. While that reflects its conceptual duality, it makes for an experience that’s occasionally as frustrating as it is thrilling.