Wednesday 29 September 1999
East meets West for Nesrallah
Ottawa musician uses Middle Eastern inspiration in new material
The Ottawa Citizen
Victor Nesrallah's last album was tailor-made for the pop radio market. His new one sounds like it's designed for belly dancing.
Victor Nesrallah has a freshly earned
bachelor of music degree to go with his enthusiasm for
his latest album, Blood From a Stone.|
After nearly two decades of writing and singing his own folk, country and blues-flavoured pop songs, the respected Ottawa musician found a rich source of inspiration in the Middle Eastern traditions of his childhood.
But it took some Arab musician friends, a university professor and a provincial arts grant to help him get in touch with his roots.
At 47, Nesrallah has a touch of grey in his curly hair and a freshly earned bachelor of music degree under his belt. He's also got the enthusiasm of a teenager about his latest album, Blood From a Stone, a labour of love that
assimilates Arabic instruments and rhythms into a singer-songwriter
context. Instruments like oud and saz are juxtaposed against acoustic guitar strumming and blunt, politically charged lyrics.
"I shouldn't say I had exhausted my folk and blues compositional background," Nesrallah says.
"But there was a little voice in the back of my head telling me that I should try this."
The voice got louder when Nesrallah, who's also noted as a producer of other artists, worked with Middle Eastern musicians, some of whom ended up on the new album.
"Something happened to me when I was recording some of the Arabic
musicians," he says. "The first time I heard them play in the studio, my blood started to boil. I was just moved intensely by this emotion."
The music transported him back to his childhood. He's the youngest child of four born to one of the first Middle Eastern families to settle in Ottawa. Nesrallah's grandparents came to Canada from Lebanon; his grandfather played the mijwiz, a traditional double-reed pipe instrument, he had uncles who were jazz players and his mother's side of the family had a long tradition of sacred singing.
His parents' home was a centre of Ottawa's Lebanese community, a gathering place for weddings and religious events, always with music in the house.
"I grew up listening to everything from big-band music to Mohammed El Bakr and his Oriental Ensemble," he says.
"You'd be attracted to these
albums because of the belly dancer on the cover and you'd find a Middle Eastern group playing dance music. Then the Beatles came along and songwriting and all that stuff."
Nesrallah focused on his career as a singer-songwriter until he decided to go back to school full time. He was
accepted at Carleton University on the compositional strength of the material from his last disc, Always Dreaming, and his talents on guitar and piano.
"I'd been toying with this for years," he says. "I'd always wanted to go back and study the formal side of music that I didn't know a lot about."
He emerged last spring with a bachelor of music performance degree, and a whole new understanding of Arabic classical music, thanks to a special study project Nesrallah undertook with music professor Elaine Keillor.
Along the way, he got an Ontario Arts Council grant to compose music that combined Middle Eastern elements with a Western singer-songwriter sensibility.
"I just started writing lyrics and music, but instead I used some of the more traditional Arabic beats, which I knew as a kid," he says. "I started combining it with Western drum backbeats and filling out this demo. I would write a song a day."
While a demo tape is normally intended
as a rough draft of a studio CD, Nesrallah's demo was so well recorded it would have been a shame to start over from scratch. It caught the attention of NovaTer, a Toronto-based company that handles world-beat acts such as Sierra Maestra, Asza and Black Umfolosi.
With NovaTer's David Julien in the producer's chair, Nesrallah's songs were re-recorded live with a band made up of top Ottawa musicians, including derbuka player Rabih Yazbek, Nouil Aoun on tabla, M'el M'rabet on oud and saz, Bruce Wittet on drums and Ken Kanwisher on bass.
They kept snippets from the demo, winding them around the songs as introduction and transition pieces.
"It was really the opposite of the Always Dreaming album because I wanted that to be really slick," Nesrallah says. "This was real spontaneous. It took on a whole new life. It really captured the whole East-West fusion thing."
As for the lyrics, Nesrallah says there was no point in beating around the bush. He tackles issues like government budget cuts, AIDS, child abuse, world peace and hunger.
The effect of these hard-hitting lyrics in a mystical Middle Eastern setting is a little off-putting -- just when you're expecting to be snakecharmed into a trance, you get a jolt of reality.
But with his acoustic guitar and deep voice providing a familiar anchor for folk-music fans, the music won't alienate the audience Nesrallah already has.
He hopes it's enough to make inroads on the Canadian folk scene, while NovaTer hopes to land international distribution. "I certainly hope to bring some Western ears to listen to the music," Nesrallah says.
For now, there's a club gig tonight at Perfect Strangers on Rideau Street, part of a double bill with M'el M'rabet's Andulucian Fusion group. Nesrallah, who will have a band backing him, is on first at 8 p.m.
Admission is $10 at the door.