Duets for Abdelrazik

Graphic by Nazik Dakkach, part of the Duets for Abdelrazik CD package

The first repetitive notes of piano announce a call to remember; a drawn out saxophone note responds. We are off for the 44 minute improv voyage that makes up Duets for Abdelrazik. If it seems like an unlikely name for a collection of duets, the inspirational fodder, in itself, draws from an unlikely source: the story of Abousfian Abdelrazik.

Will cultural memory stand the test of time?

When I chatted in a Mile End cafe this fall with Stefan Christoff, the community activist, artist, and pianist behind this project, he spoke of “cultural memory”. If you are unaware of Abousfian Abdelrazik’s story, a quick romp on Google might fill in some gaps. If you are reading this article at some point in the very distant future (years past the rise and fall of the empire known as “Google”) using some (presently undiscovered) communication medium, perhaps you have a different way to pore through the news and legal archives and learn of Abdelrazik’s trials and tribulations from 2006 onwards, including his placement on the UN blacklist and arrest in Sudan. Stefan Christoff also hopes that you, future reader, have access to some form of cultural memory about the affair. When Stefan Christoff talks of cultural memory, he is (at least partially) talking about a lasting imprint that goes beyond the written record. In a CKUT interview about the duets and their inspiration, Christoff points out that there will always be legal records and news articles about Abdelrazik’s case, but he asks whether the case will be remembered for what it questions about our particular era in time.

A musical reaction

He tells me that this recording, or rather these recordings, as the process lasted two winters, are a “musical reaction” to a situation after the fact. I would say that “recording” is a fitting term to use as Christoff wishes to add another nuance to the existing record surrounding Abdelrazik’s case. His hope is that years from now someone will happen across Duets for Abdelrazik and the music and title will pique their curiosity enough to investigate the name and the climate surrounding the case. His hope is that they will understand that the driving force behind the project was a musical reaction to (amongst many other things) the normalization of torture and the institutionalization of racism.

You can look it up…

Stefan Christoff himself, was, and still is, a very engaged member of the group of activists that brought media attention to the plight of Abdelrazik, a Sudanese-born Canadian citizen. This group helped raise funds for him at different points of his ordeal (Abdelrazik eventually made it back to Canada and was taken off the blacklist). I could go on and further add to the written record, but to honour Christoff’s intent of letting the existence of the music itself trigger curiosity to find out more, I shall stop here.

Tarab or something like it

When discussing the music, Christoff brings up the Arabic term Tarab. He is quick to point out that although he might not be using it in a strictly accurate way, it at least approaches the notion that he is trying to convey. Tarab (very) loosely translates to an ecstatic, trance like state induced in the participants of a musical performance. Christoff talks of this term when describing the process of recording instrumental music that is based on a very specific topic. Hopefully emotion will fill the gap where lyrics might normally reside.

Like-minded ringers

As he mentions in the CKUT interview, he has chosen to title each song with the name of the collaborator for the piece rather than trying to fit some label that would fall short. And he has decided to collaborate with musicians who prioritize participating in the community of arts rather than treating art as a commodity. That being said – the array of participants draws from “the pros”. These are musicians who have previously participated in myriad musical excursions of style and content, with a combined musical pedigree belying much success. But if you take out the Google tool again and search the names – you’ll also see that they have been involved in their own fair share of activist causes.

Weaving Duets

Christoff plays the piano, and each duet has this instrument at its core. He sometimes leads the melodic flourishes and sometimes sits back to fill in textures as the collaborator decides on the next turn for this musical journey. It is actually quite surprising that the recording was done (at hotel2tango) over two winters; it is surprising as there is no lack of continuity amongst the songs featuring disparate instruments – from saxophone, violin, contrabass, buzuq, and cello to oud. Christoff’s piano is the consistent thread.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6

New York based Matana Roberts’ saxophone on the first track complements the piano beautifully. If we hear jazz inflections in its decisive pace, this might have more to do with our association of that instrument with the genre rather than the nature of the refrains exchanged between sax and piano. This piece offers a strident beginning. Both musicians’ mastery of their craft and ability to dialogue are quite apparent.

The second piece begins tentatively, and then just as you’ve been lured in, Christoff’s piano and “Rhythm Activist” Norman Nawrocki’s violin tumble into a flowing banter that insists on torrents of crashing water to my listening mind. This impression is especially true during a vibrant dialogue of soaring bowing and bold piano progressions that leads into pizzicato playing and jumbles of piano notes. The timbres that Nawrocki evokes from his instrument (particularly at the end of the song) remind me of Warren Ellis’ sounds (of Dirty Three fame).

The piece with Peter Burton on contrabass definitely evokes happier thoughts. This feeling is emphasized by the contrabass’s major scale(ish) runs throughout swaths of the song as Christoff leads the charge on piano.

The sound of the buzuq on the fourth track instantly conjures the first (more apparent) nods to the orient (middle and otherwise). I am unfamiliar with the instrument, but somehow felt at home within Radwan Ghazi Moumneh’s runs. At times contemplative, we are drawn to follow a definite pulse and progression set by the buzuq and alternately embellished and scaffolded by Christoff’s piano work.

The piece with Rebecca Foon is one of my favourites. Foon is very active in the local music scene, and is a member of one of Montreal’s most glorious musical ensembles, Esmerine. This fifth piece has the most structure and discernible movements within it. A pronounced beginning leads to a call and response of themes and melodies that Foon and Christoff barter, and then fuse as one. These themes also enter, depart, and return throughout the song. The different textures of piano and cello work wonderfully together, amalgamating to form the project’s most “orchestral” song.

Sam Shalabi provides another standout track in this collection, clocking in at just over 12 minutes, it is the last and also the longest. Shalabi’s is also a familiar name within the Montreal community with his various, ongoing musical projects playing mostly oud and guitar (he is now based in Egypt). For this collaboration with Christoff, he decides to concentrate on the lower register of his instrument, departing from standard (traditional) oud practice. The result is wholly gratifying. Christoff and Shalabi somehow are able to pursue their own musical narratives literally on top of each other, while simultaneously giving enough space for both trains of thought to grow and intermingle and cohere at various points in the tune. With its length and ambition, this song is probably the one that most resembles a journey; you will be happy to ride the peaks and valleys.

…So you should explore

The design, hand screen-printing, and hand packaging of the album is beautiful. It lives up to Christoff’s wish that this album will entice a casual “peruser” to pick it up and explore further. I highly recommend procuring this CD and also keeping an eye out so you can catch the collaborators when they perform the pieces live around town.

Duets for Abdelrazik was released in the summer of 2012 – with Stefan Christoff on piano and featuring Matana Roberts on saxophone, Norman Nawrocki on violin, Peter Burton on contrabass, Radwan Ghazi Moumneh on buzuq, Rebecca Foon on cello and Sam Shalabi on oud.

More information on Duets for Abdelrazik including how and where to purchase the music can be found here.

Listen to one of the Duets for Abdelrazik featuring Stefan Christoff on piano and Sam Shalabi on oud:


Speaking of activist artists - Prasun Lala would like to thank Adam Yauch for bringing Rahat Fateh Ali Khan to the New Yorkers Against Violence concert oh so many years ago. It felt like it brought a little sanity to some pretty insane times.