The Sand Enigma: A Look into the Creative Energy of Montreal/Cairo’s Jazz Group Land of Kush

On November 11th, 2019, I was sneaking my way into a sold out Sala Rossa to catch the launch of Sam Shalabi’s Montreal-based big band Land of Kush and their newest work entitled Sand Enigma. I was led to the very back of the room, weaving and cautiously stepping between the mush of people. In through the green room, and on to what is usually the stage, there are chairs set up for an additional audience perched above and behind the massive setup of instruments and chairs on the ground. Taking my seat in the dark, I look out into the room. People sitting, standing shoulder to shoulder, all anticipating what is to come.

Nadah El Shazly, vocalist and electronic performer hailing from Cairo, took the stage as the opener. She is joined by her fellow members of Land of Kush: alto saxophonist Devin Brajah Waldman, composer of the evening Sam Shalabi, and bassist Jonah Fortune. This music is completely blessed.

Nadah commanded the energy of the room, bringing the hundreds of people together under one sound - her voice. She is a powerful performer, but not performative. Her honesty in expressions of pain and loss created an emotional atmosphere which felt completely tangible. She was affecting every body in the room. I had my own personal attachment as I found myself crying, as I see her as somebody which looks like my mother. She sings in Arabic, a language in my body but lost to my tongue. I am not sad, but utterly moved. With a complete wholesome presence, Nadah brought the room into a focused, energetic light; relating everyone present under an emotive approach to humanity.

Then, after a break, the big band Land of Kush took the stage to perform Sand Enigma. This is no ordinary big band. From my seat behind the stage I could see whole string and percussion sections, saxophones, flute, clarinet, traditional egyptian instruments, a harp, piano, synth, the list goes on... A cluster of sound is destined to fill my ears and I am only just seeing it now, prior to the performance.

Sam Shalabi takes his place at the helm. As the composer, he does not perform in this group but only conducts. Land of Kush operates as an Egyptian big band within the context of experimental free jazz. This means that while they are following a common compositional thread, much of the evening was not predetermined and was happening on the moment, under Shalabi’s direction. Points of his finger become solos, new forms, and creative birth. I could see Shalabi making intense eye contact and connection with his musicians - in the moment, I savour the intimate view of this show that I have. Sand Enigma had my intense focus from start to finish and the energy in the room was some of the most profoundly uniting musical phenomena I have been in the presence of.

The show ended and I found myself at the bar at Casa Del Popolo having a drink and attempting to reconstitute my sense of self from the experience I just had. It was the first day of a big snow storm, so the bar was empty until the band came to celebrate their performance. Before my eyes they came together to dance. Nadah was on the table, Brajah was letting his soul fly free, and Shalabi was watching all unfold like a proud father. I am thinking there is something special in this group of people beyond the music. Their souls are connected with a fire and passion for the pain and beauty of life and they celebrate it.

I highly recommend listening and buying Sand Enigma on Bandcamp. Make sure to listen all the way through. Revel in the voices.

Julia Warren is the host of Jazz Island every Sunday at noon.​

If you would like to hear her interview with Sam Shalabi listen here.